mental health, gender based violence, hypertension, hiv. my view on these things, my location of their causes are seemly rooted in my politics. i cannot do.but.to ask. what can be done. to broaden focus. unveil the self imposed walls that mask the …truth
truth. the broader bigger. expanded version. at the risk of being as difficult as possible
South Africa is a country full of iconic, apartheid-era protest songs, but one of the most famous contains the lines: “My mother was a kitchen girl/My father was a garden boy/And that is why I’m a unionist/I’m a unionist/I’m a unionist!” [Editor’s note: other versions also end with “I’m a communist” or “I’m a socialist”]
As these lyrics demonstrate, domestic workers – nannies, maids, gardeners and drivers – have historically occupied an important space in South African society. And they continue to do so.
In South Africa, domestic work isn’t just a job. It is emblematic of the country’s massive social inequality which is rooted in its racially segregated past.
White South Africans rarely work as domestics, certainly not white men. But for generations, black and coloured (mixed-race) women have cared for other people’s children and homes – often at the expense of their own.
There are approximately one million women employed as domestic workers in South Africa.
Despite the introduction of a new minimum wage for domestic workers last December – those who work more than 27 hours a week will by the end of the year earn a monthly wage of between 1812.57 rand (approximately US$155) and 2065.47 rand (approximately US$175) – most domestic workers still don’t earn anything close to a living wage.
According to a new tool for employers, a living wage for a domestic worker with three dependents should come to R5056 (US$426.50), which is almost R3000 (US$250) less than the new sectoral minimum wage.
In addition, employers must contribute one per cent of a domestic worker’s wage (provided that they work more than 24 hours a month) to an Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) but a recent study shows that up to 50 per cent of domestic workers are not covered by this insurance.
The UIF is crucial in a sector where job insecurity runs rife. Many domestic workers have no formal employment contracts, for example, relying instead on verbal agreements which can be easily rescinded. Although the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) is there to act as mediator during labour disputes, many cases are not brought forward by women who remain uneducated and poor, and are usually unaware of their rights.
It was a story of casual exploitation. The woman interviewed performed multiple domestic roles as a cook, cleaner and child minder for just R3500 (US$300) a month. It’s an amount way above the sectoral minimum but it is still not enough to stop her children from living in a cold, damp house with a leaky roof.
The conditions of employment for domestic workers vary from house to house, but along with miners, domestic workers have long endured one of the most exploitative employment relationships in South Africa’s history.
Apartheid laws meant that generations of black and coloured women were denied access to education, thus creating a labour pool of unskilled workers who have been funnelled into low-paying domestic work.
Cheryl Louw is one such person. The 44-year-old mother-of-two works for a white, Afrikaans-speaking family in one of Cape Town’s wealthiest neighbourhoods. She says her employers – a doctor and an engineer – treat her well, but her vocation was not of her choosing.
“Because I didn’t have education, because of apartheid, I have to do this job now. I didn’t want to be a domestic.”
Louw lives in the township of Khayelitsha, renting space in a wendy house [editor’s note: a low-cost pre-fabricated dwelling] in the back of someone’s property, which is a common occurrence amongst South Africa’s working poor.
With a monthly transport bill of R300 (approximately US$25) and rent and electricity costing her R650 (US$55) a month, Cheryl has very little left for herself once she has sent some money home to her mother and children in Oudtshoorn some 400 kilometres away from Cape Town.
Cheryl leaves home at 05.20 every day and takes a train, followed by a minibus taxi loaded with other workers in order to start work at 08.00.
It is hard work and long days but Cheryl, who has had this job for 15 years, says she is grateful for the work. “I was suffering without earning, when I was home. Now I earn something.”
But she has had to pay a price. “It’s painful. You sit with other people’s kids and you miss your own.”
She says she wants a better life for her 24-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter and constantly reminds them about the importance of education.
“I can’t even imagine that [my daughter] could do something like this.”
Dignity and respect
For the women who work in other people’s houses, being treated with dignity and respect is something that is difficult to legislate.
But the key issue remains how South Africa’s domestic workers will go from earning a minimum wage to a true living wage.
Despite the efforts of unions such as the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU), this may still be a long way off.
Myrtle Witbooi, the secretary general of SADSAWU and chair of the International Domestic Workers Network, is herself a former domestic worker.
She told Equal Times: “The sectoral determination has been a great help if workers are aware of their rights, but we still need to do a lot more education and awareness on the Basic Conditions of Employment Act.”
Although the new wage is more than domestic workers have ever earned, it is still not enough.
“No, we are not satisfied with the new wage and we are busy setting up a meeting with the Minister of Labour. For a domestic worker, a R100 increase doesn’t make a difference. Our demands remain [an increase of] between R3000 or R3500. We also want a travel allowance for those workers that need to travel daily to work,” says Witbooi.
According to Debbie Budlender, an academic and social scientist who wrote a paper entitled The introduction of a minimum wage for domestic workers in South Africa for the ILO, the other unfinished business of the minimum wage is the lack of pension for domestic workers.
Simply put, workers can only contribute to their retirement fund if they earn enough money to put some aside. Right now, the majority of domestic workers in South Africa do not. However, campaigners hope that once South Africa’s domestics start earning a living wage, they will no longer be condemned to spend their retirement years in poverty.
This moving photoessay shows the faces of some rural families affected by the gold mining industry’s failure to prevent silicosis.
Black rural women: Carrying the burden of the gold mining industry’s neglect
Text by Tanya Charles, photoessay by Thom Pierce
The mining industry contributes significantly to the hardship experienced by black women in rural areas of South Africa. For decades, mining houses have drawn in young black men for labour, only for many to return home sick, with little to show for years spent toiling underground. Those who have contracted the preventable but incurable lung disease, silicosis, come home to die a slow and painful death. It is then the women in rural communities who are left to provide support and care under the most adverse conditions.
As part of its efforts to support pending litigation against the mining industry to secure long overdue compensation to mineworkers who contracted silicosis and for the women who took care of them, Sonke Gender Justice (Sonke) has been conducting research in the rural Eastern Cape. The research is making visible how the gold mining industry’s failure to prevent silicosis has forced rural black women further into the margins of society.
Silicosis: A preventative disease
Silicosis is a degenerative and incurable lung disease caused by inhaling silica dust, which is produced when mining gold. Characterised by scarring of the lungs, which produces shortness of breath and fever, it first came to the attention of the gold mining industry over one hundred years ago when it affected minority white miners who formed part of the work force.
New safety standards were then developed that led to South Africa’s mines gaining recognition for these occupational safety reforms. However, the scale of the pandemic as it has affected black miners has been minimised and ignored.
In recent years, data into the manifestation of silicosis among black mineworkers has become more widely available. The Pathology Automation System, an electronic database of approximately 100?000 autopsies of deceased miners dating back to 1975, is one example. Other research, including more recently Jock McCulloch’s critical study titled South Africa’s Gold Mines and the Politics of Silicosis, made the point that by 1911 black mineworkers were more at risk than their white counterparts, given the racialised division of labour that saw white workers occupy supervisory roles while black men remained underground doing manual work.
Gold mining houses have not taken necessary precautions to prevent miners from inhaling this toxic dust. A 2007 Global Occupational Health Network report said: “It is as simple as this; if occupational exposure to dust is avoided silicosis will cease to occur.” The dust levels miners are exposed to in South Africa are four times higher than those permitted in Europe and North America. With South Africa’s gold mines being the most profitable in the world, it appears that profits are more important than the preservation of life.
There are several ongoing battles being fought to hold the gold mining industry to account for their negligence. The Legal Resources Centre, Richard Spoor Attorneys and Abrahams Kiewitz are representing 56 applicants in a class action lawsuit where current and former mineworkers and surviving dependants of mineworkers who died from the disease are demanding their right to compensation for silicosis and TB contracted in mines. The case will be heard in the South Gauteng High court in October 2015.
Uncovering the gender impact of silicosis
While the spotlight has been on the gold mining industry’s violation of miners’ health rights, and the dismal levels of compensation for the occupational diseases they have suffered, little attention has been paid to how this has impacted on women and girls. When miners start to show symptoms of silicosis and are unable to work, they lose their jobs and return to their rural homes. Sonke Gender Justice has undertaken research in the Eastern Cape – home to a majority of mineworkers – to explore the gendered impact of silicosis and how this disease is affecting communities. The preliminary findings are alarming.
In June 2015, Sonke researchers visited rural areas located in the Mbhashe and Mhlontlo municipal areas of the Eastern Cape to conduct in-depth interviews with carers, all women, who are looking after former mineworkers suffering from silicosis.
Zinhle Nkosi, one of the researchers on the team explained: “There are days when they have to care for their partners the whole day, especially in June when chest problems become worse because of the cold. They have to bath and feed them and help them to sit as most of them don’t have proper medication. They live on pain pills.”
Care work is physically and emotionally taxing work. Women who were interviewed suffer from depression, hypertension and diabetes mostly due to stress and poor diet. Patrick Godana, who is also part of Sonke’s research team says: “The poverty that these women endure is unbearable. Women are faced with the burden of care but also the direct impact of extreme poverty. When we visited their homes there was no smell of what was cooked in the morning or the previous evening. It’s just dry”.
With women and girls deemed responsible for cooking, cleaning and looking after sick people and the elderly, they lose the time that could be used to access education and work opportunities. They remain locked in poverty with scarcely any time for self-development.
Tanya Charles is the policy development and advocacy specialist at Sonke Gender Justice.
i read two articles today that made me feel a particular kind of sadness – one that starts with a deep sigh, a slouched paralysis, and scrunched up forehead and look in my eye…that if you could see me… you would wonder if i was in some kind of trance or pain or deep thought….and while this feeling remains… another starts… deep inside my chest i feel an energy…a ball of resistance starting… and i can fell my body sending clear messages to my being… that something needs to be done…there is work to do…little steps..in the big picture… questions need to be asked…the fighting spirit needs to be beckoned….
how am i part of the structures that create these problems
how has my life been so different
what if that man or woman had been me, my father, my mother, my sister, my brother, my cousin, my aunt, my uncle
where i come from – beautiful gujarat – were my ancestors, my grandfathers and great grandfathers bones and blood and sweat not part of this equation…. how dare we not recognise the suffering of others that led to the riches of where we are today?
the situation in this country is appalling. i want to never forget – so that i can appreciate my situation. in a conversation with a friend, who just discovered that ghandi was actually described by many scholars as racist, sexist, and still pro-sectarian… we wondered aloud if people are more inclined towards good or evil….i said….”i would like to think that as people, we are more naturally inclined to being good – but i wonder if its only in the way that it serves us to be ‘good people’ when actually, we are all somehow living off the backs of the poor…. we are all contributing to the structures of the current economic system and we are all guilty of miseducating ourselves…or rather…. educating ourselves to be clever – not to enact change in the world that will REALLY transform the inequalities at the expense of our own comfort… change that REALLY pushes boundaries in thought and action….and change that REALLY confronts the realities that haunt us.. and disturb us…. but is easier to turn a blind eye”
i am interested in revolutionary ideas that break all these boundaries
i think that all knowledge is really one. my journey starts with a pursuit of knowledge in health, occupational therapy, rehabilitation, empowering individuals, breaking boundaries, merging “creativity, science, art, human interaction, and power of the inner spiritual self” to transform- to change – to enable….. only to feel what is so eloquently described in this poem by poet: Abdellatif Laabi, translation by Andre Naffis-Sahely
Knowledge is unforgiving
It gnaws at you
What are you guilty of?
To feel yourself burning with the words
you draped over the unnameable,
pinned to your seat
while sipping your coffee?
Dare to say it:
despite being free of evil
you are its hostage
Can we melt the executioner’s heart
change human nature?
No one has the answer
that insoluble equation
and what you find is that you have knowledge packaged neatly into a box that only works in isolation… in an ideal world…. trapped with knowledge and no agency or power to do anything… as most children of this century are (by poet: Abdellatif Laabi, translation by Andre Naffis-Sahely)
I’m a child of this dreary century
a child who never grew up
Doubts that set my tongue on fire
burned my wings
I learned to walk
then I unlearned it
I grew weary of oases
and camels eager for ruins
My head turned to the East
I lie in the middle of the road
and wait for the caravan of the mad
until one day you realise that everything you have learnt and unlearnt and relearnt and everything is actually one…. from one source and to one end. you start to make sense of things in this way
the only way to be educated is to read and reread and stubbornly reread – with a healthy dose of work ethic and discipline
the only way to learn is to practice what you have learnt in the most thoroughly applied way
then unpack, unscramble and question your ideas and thoughts until you repackage it in a different way
read it differently from opposing points of view
reread it in its original form
continue until you have covered all the disciplines and school of thoughts known to man – arts, science, law, business, profane, religious
the only way to change …is to trust in the power of these ideas – embody them so that you become the idea you wish to ultimately represent
let that idea be simple – so simple that it is in fact profound