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The power of speaking out: an interview with South Africa’s pioneering activist for domestic workers’ rights

Myrtle Witbooi spent decades working as a domestic worker, before becoming a leader in the domestic worker movement. Her message is simple: domestic work is decent work, and should be treated as such.

My name is Myrtle Witbooi and I am from South Africa. We (the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union) are the only domestic workers' union in South Africa. The union was founded by domestic workers and former domestic workers that decided they have had enough of the exploitation and came together to form their own union. Basically, the union was founded during the Apartheid years, when domestic workers had no voice. We could not even answer to the master, we had to obey to everything we were told to do.

It took us another 40 years to get actual labour laws in South Africa. At that point in South Africa, a domestic worker was earning like $3 or €3 a month and had no rights. You know, it was a terrible experience to live in South Africa as a domestic worker during the Apartheid years, because we had no freedom. But we are women, and we are very strong. And if we can do the work in the house, we can also think for ourselves. So we decided to stand up and we decided to talk about why we are different than other workers and that slowly started a shift in South Africa. 

Over the years, we have managed to reach about 50 000 domestic workers. And then in 1994, there was democracy in South Africa, but there were still no rights for domestic workers. So we decided to challenge our democratic government. In 2001, we asked our government: "Why are there no laws for domestic workers?" And then we actually went into parliament for the first time, we talked to them, and my question to them was: "We were fighting together for this freedom, so why must I now stand in front of you and beg you for labour laws for domestic workers?" 

We were fighting together for this freedom, so why must I now stand in front of you and beg you for labour laws for domestic workers? 

We wanted to be included in unemployment insurance, because if we became unemployed, our families would suffer. They said no, that there was no way domestic workers would ever get this passed. We said fine, and started thinking about what would be our next move. And then, five of us decided to go to parliament and we locked the parliament, so nobody could come in or out. The next day, I went to speak in parliament and I said: “I am so ashamed of this government. We are working for you, we are the ones that dress you, we are the ones that clean your clothes, not your wives. Who feeds your children? It's domestic workers. So why must we beg you for everything?” And they said, “Ok, we're sorry, it will take another year”. The next morning, people were phoning to say: "Myrtle, do you know you have unemployment insurance now?"

This shows you the power of the domestic workers. It shows you that we might not be highly educated, we might not have a degree but we have a good brain. And God has given us the ability to speak out. And that is how domestic workers in South Africa are now organising themselves: domestic workers are speaking out.

So what is the role of domestic worker organisations now? Our role is to see that domestic workers are educated about their rights. Also, with the different languages in the world, we have to ensure that workers know their rights and understand them in their language. So this is the role of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF). We declare that refugees, migrant workers, and domestic workers are all the same. There is no difference between us, we all work for employers, we all suffer the same, we all understand low wages. We are workers and our work is decent work.

We are workers and our work is decent work.

Because if it wasn't for our work, many of you wouldn't be able to go to university. Some of you might not be able to have the businesses you have. So this is the message that we want to say to the world. That our work is decent work, and our work makes all work possible. And like we say: nothing for us, without us. 

Neil Howard (oD): If you are not on a podium every day, you should be, Myrtle. This is beautiful. I could tell that you are obviously a politician, this is very clear. A couple of other questions related to exactly what you have said. Why is the domestic workers struggle also important for labour struggle generally? 

Myrtle: If you look at domestic workers, they all do the same labour. And if we look at migrant workers, you find that they don’t have a voice when they come to new countries. They are isolated, and that is why it is important for the movement to advocate for their voices to be heard all over the world. We don't want to leave any domestic workers out in the cold. We want to make sure that labour laws cover migrants in all countries.

This goes beyond the Domestic Workers Convention (C189), because if your country doesn't have national labour laws, C189 won’t do anything for domestic workers. We have to have our national laws. When we started fighting for C189, we never thought we would have an international domestic workers federation. Then, after we got C189, it struck us: where to now? What are we going to do with this tool that we've got? How are we going to reach domestic workers? And that’s when we started talking about the impossible dream of an international domestic workers federation. The most significant part of the is that its controlled by women. We are not excluding men, but we wanted a federation controlled by women. Many people doubted us.  Now, five years later, tomorrow, I'm sitting in front of you, and we made it.

♒ ♒ ♒ ♒ /flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Neil (oD): Could you please speak a little bit about the linkages between the domestic workers struggle and also women's struggles, anti-racist struggles, migrant struggles, just some of the linkages between these different struggles. 

Myrtle: I think it's important because all women, or most women, depend on domestic workers. Most of the most powerful women in the world they depend on domestic workers. So it's important that all women support the domestic workers' struggle. It's important that all women see that their house is a proper house for domestic workers, their house is a safe house for domestic workers. That's why we launched the My Fair Home campaign.

We also have to think about domestic violence, we also have to think about violence against domestic workers. Often it remains a secret in the home, because domestic workers are too scared to speak out. And sometimes you don't even know you are abused. So I think it's important that all women stand together. We shouldn't be seen as an isolated group, like here are the domestic workers and there are the academics. We should see that the academics are supporting the domestic workers' struggle. We should be seen as women.

Most of the most powerful women in the world they depend on domestic workers. 

Often, when big cooperatives invite us to speak we ask them, “Oh, where is your domestic worker?” They respond, “Oh, but how can she be here? She's supposed to clean my house”. So what is she then? You are calling me to the meeting but you are leaving the other woman that's working for you at home. So that's always my challenge to women. How are you supporting the struggle that we are in? Women should support the domestic worker struggle. Women should see us their worker a woman in their house, not an object.

Neil (oD): Why is the struggle important for racism and Black people? 

Myrtle: In South Africa, our color dictated our experience as domestic workers. If I am Black, I am a poorer domestic worker. At the moment, we have a lot of exploitation, especially migrant workers coming to our country now from other African countries. For example, we find that some agencies will specifically seek out Black workers, because they feel that Black workers are easier to exploit. And that must stop. It is something that we are faced with every day. Black workers are getting more exploited.

Neil (oD) : One final question, for people who are not experts and who don't necessarily understand the history of the struggle, could you just in a few sentences explain why migrant workers are especially vulnerable? What is it about migrant status that makes them especially struggle?

Myrtle: I think the problem is that migrant workers are considered to be cheap labour. And we need to fight this. If you employ a domestic worker in South Africa that knows her rights and she knows what her salary should be, you’ll have a harder time getting away with exploiting her than you would with a migrant worker, who might not have the same information. 

If I am from a country like Lebanon and I come from South Africa and I don't understand the language, how can I tell people I am being exploited? Today, the biggest force of employment is migrant workers, especially in countries other than South Africa. It's the biggest challenge we face. Refugee workers have no papers, so they are even more exploited because they are hidden in the house, and they cannot come out because they are scared. So you see there is so much to do in this whole Federation, there are still so many hidden corners. And as long as we can, we have to try and see how we can bring the message across to domestic workers, that they are workers, like all other workers. 

About the authors

Myrtle Witbooi is President of the International Domestic Workers Federation and General Secretary of the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union. Born outside of Cape Town, South Africa, she became a domestic worker in 1962 due to the lack of opportunities and apartheid laws that prevented her from pursuing a medical career. She has worked to improve domestic workers’ rights since 1971.

Neil Howard is an academic activist and Fellow at the Institute of Development Policy, University of Antwerp. His research focuses on unfree labour, and on the workings of the policy establishment as it seeks to respond. Follow him on twitter @NeilPHoward.


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