Activists want government to do more to register domestic workers

Three years after the landmark Concourt ruling, very little has changed with their access to compensation

By Kimberly Mutandiro

28 November 2023

Koketso Moeti, Jame Barret and Maggie Ntombeni speaking at the domestic worker dialogue at the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg last Wednesday. Photo: Kimberly Mutandiro

In November 2020, the Constitutional Court made a landmark ruling that domestic workers be covered by the provisions of the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act (COIDA) and that damages can be claimed for work-related injuries, illnesses and death.

Three years later, domestic workers say they are still struggling to access the compensation and the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF).

“For many years we have been struggling to get employers to register us for UIF and COIDA. Domestic workers are still being mistreated,” said Manyunyu Florence Sosiba, national president of the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU).

Sosiba was speaking at an event to mark the three-year anniversary of the Mary Mahlangu judgment held at the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg.

Maria Mahlangu was a domestic worker who drowned in her employer’s swimming pool in Pretoria in March 2012. The compensation matter heard by the Constitutional Court was rooted in a case brought by Mahlangu’s daughter, Sylvia Mahlangu, who was her sole dependent at the time. She was left financially devastated after her mother’s death. She approached the Department of Labour to claim compensation but was turned away.

Last week’s dialogue – organised by the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI) – aimed to bring together government officials, civil society, domestic workers and employers to find solutions to issues in the domestic work sector.

Representatives from SERI said they were concerned that fewer than 20 claims have been submitted with COIDA since 2020, despite a relatively larger number of cases reported to the organisation and others representing domestic workers.

Sosiba, who has been a domestic worker since 1983, said that she is yet to be registered for COIDA and UIF. Domestic workers are still being mistreated, earning far below the minimum wage, and not being compensated after getting injured at work, she said.

“We want the Department of Labour to ensure that employers comply with the registration of workers, and that failure to do so would constitute exploitation,” Sosiba said.

Maggie Mthombeni from Izwi Domestic Workers said she was particularly concerned with the working conditions of mostly immigrant domestic workers. She said they were aware of cases where employers deliberately employ domestic workers who are undocumented to bypass labour laws.

According to Mthombeni some immigrant domestic workers struggled to claim UIF or COIDA despite being registered due to “system glitches”. She added that while some employers had registered their domestic workers, but some people do not include relevant documents needed when claims are submitted, or they were still not contributing the 1% fee of the worker’s salary.

She said Izwi and other domestic workers unions are working with SERI on a campaign to educate domestic workers on their rights.

The dialogue ended with activists making a call for the government to ensure that employers comply by registering their workers.

Spokesperson for the Department of Labour, Dikentsho Seabo, told GroundUp that the department had amended the COIDA Act to include domestic workers.

“If employers refuse to register a claim, employees can visit any labour centre to report their own claim. The department has inspectors to investigate any unfair labour practices,” Seabo said.

He urged private employers to register their workers with the fund, adding that immigrant workers can also be registered using their passport/ID, work permits and asylum seeker documents.