Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Organising domestic workers across Africa: a regional view

In less than 10 years domestic workers in Africa have gone from barely any organisational contact to a thriving movement, but there is still a long way to go.

Vicky Kanyoka
22 June 2017

Photo provided by author.

I am Vicky Medard Kanyoka and I work for the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), as the regional coordinator for Africa. My background in labour rights stems from my work in the women’s department of the Trade Union Congress of Tanzania, and later in the Conservation Hotels Domestic Workers Union (CHODAWU) as the director for women, gender, organisation, and youth.

It was during this period that I became interested in domestic workers rights. We had a number of complaints from domestic workers, who were not part of the union, including unfair dismissals, abuses, and termination without benefits. After coordinating a project on child domestic workers for my union, I was appointed in 2009 by the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Associations (IUF) to run a project on domestic workers in Africa – not an easy task. This was during the preparations for a discussion of an ILO convention for domestic workers.

Coordinating Africa as a region was very difficult for me because I didn’t know what was going on in any other African country besides Tanzania. I didn’t know who to reach out to, the total number of domestic workers in Africa, or the challenges faced in each country. Nevertheless, I felt confident because of my experience of working on child domestic workers rights in Tanzania and because of the visible commitment of colleagues from Latin America, Asia, South Africa, and the USA when we met to strategize about how to start our movement and what to do in our respective continents.

Domestic workers’ trade unions in Africa started becoming visible during the campaign for the ILO’s Domestic Workers Convention in 2009. That is not to say that they did not exist before, just that the voice of domestic workers and activities of the domestic workers’ movement were dormant.

Starting from scratch

In 2009, only nine domestic worker unions existed in Africa. They had names, but only had a few members or no membership at all, which made it difficult to even ask for membership numbers. Interventions like recruitment drives, seminars, and workshops to build domestic workers’ capacity so that they could claim their rights were very limited compared to other sectors or did not happen at all. Those unions that did have members did not keep records of them, and the participation of domestic workers in decision-making processes was very limited. This was especially true in unions where domestic workers were subsumed under one general union covering multiple sectors, such as KUDHEIHA in Kenya, or CHODAWU in Tanzania. In 2008, the IUF conducted a workshop in Kenya for the KUDHEIHA union through the Africa Women’s Project. Of the thirty domestic workers who attended the workshop, not one was a member of the union.

Trade unions for domestic workers faced many challenges, including low membership due to a lack of organising skills among domestic workers, as well as many other necessary skills such as leadership, networking, communication, negotiation, advocacy, and lobbying. They also had limited knowledge of how trade unions operate and the rights of workers, women, and domestic workers, as well human rights. The absence of recognition for domestic workers as workers in legal mechanisms meant that domestic workers – and the organisations they created – were marginalised in all spheres of the world of work.

The development of domestic worker organising in Africa has undergone four phases:

Phase I, the beginning: building organisations and the campaign for an ILO Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers, 2009-2011

This first phase included mapping out trade unions for domestic workers in the region, which was done through building alliances with other trade unions, trade union centres, and global unions. We also built alliances with civil society and human rights organisations. Furthermore, we conducted sub-regional training workshops for both French and English speakers in the few unions organising domestic workers at that time.

Trade union leaders, domestic worker organisations (both trade union affiliates and non-affiliates), and domestic workers from different unions and supportive NGOs all attended these workshops. An important outcome of these workshops was the recommendation that an African Regional Domestic Workers Network be formed. Moreover, it was through these events that we strategized how to campaign for the adoption of the ILO convention for domestic workers (C189) in different countries and across different regions.

Phase II, the African Regional Conference: Building a domestic workers network in Africa, 2011-2013

After the passing of C189 we held an Africa-wide conference to discuss issues of domestic workers in the region. The first conference was held in Nairobi, Kenya in 2012. Participants included representatives from Anglophone, Francophone, and Lusophone African countries. Representatives reported on developments towards the ratification of C189 in their respective countries, and laid out their plans for continuing their advocacy efforts. Some achievements included successful recruitment drives to increase organisational membership and the formation of new unions specifically for domestic workers, such as SYTRAD in Guinea, SATHR in Senegal, SINED in Mozambique, CIAWU in Malawi, SYNIATHA in Mali, and UHFTAWU in Uganda.

During the conference, we declared 16 June Global Domestic Workers Day and recommended that we call for African governments to ratify and implement C189. We also revisited the recommendation to establish an African Network for Domestic Workers.

Phase Three: Launching the Africa Domestic Workers Network, June 2013

Domestic workers in Africa put into practice the major recommendation of launching a regional network with the leadership and guidelines necessary for it to operate. On 16 June 2013, the Africa Domestic Workers’ Network (AfDWN) was launched in Cape Town, South Africa, exactly two years after the adoption of C189. The same year, Africa was to record the ratification of C189 by two countries: Mauritius and South Africa.

The launch conference of the AfDWN took place between 15-16 June 2013. The South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers’ Union (SADSAWU) hosted the conference with the support of the Congress of South Africa Trade Unions (COSATU). Ninety-five domestic worker representatives from 17 organisations across 17 countries, with a total membership of 95,572, participated in the conference, and were joined by steering committee members and coordinators of the International Domestic Workers Network from Asia, the Caribbean, the USA and Latin America, as well as ally organisations from South Africa and Europe.

Phase Four: Strengthening domestic workers trade unions

The strategic goal of IDWF is to have a strong, democratic, and united domestic workers global organisation for protecting and advancing the rights of members by 2020.

There are currently 20 AfDWN member organisations in the IDWF. In order to meet the IDWF’s strategic goals, the African region needs to build the capacity of domestic workers’ trade unions by addressing the following challenges:

1. Most domestic workers’ trade unions in Africa have inadequate knowledge about trade unions because they are new and have always been excluded from the benefits provided by trade unions, including education on trade unions. They have poor knowledge of the organisational systems, including organisational structures at national and international levels, that underpin good union leadership, member participation, constitution and good governance, internal decision making processes, representation, team work, planning, and membership recruitment.

2. Domestic workers have inadequate skills in several areas, such as leadership, effective communication, lobbying and advocacy, negotiating, public speaking, record keeping, recruitment drives, due collecting, handling finances, management, networking, report writing, etc.

3. During the current campaign to lobby for the ratification of C189 and amendments to national labour laws, one of the key challenges is putting forward and continuing demands for changes to minimum wages and protection issues, including occupational health and safety, social security, and written contracts.

What are the major challenges in Africa today?

Apart from Mauritius, South Africa, and Guinea, no African country has ratified C189, an enormous obstacle to achieving decent work for domestic workers in Africa. And for those three exceptions enforcement remains a problem.

In addition, the issue of migrant domestic workers is escalating, as many domestic workers – especially from Ethiopia, Ghana, Mauritania, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya – leave Africa to work abroad in Middle Eastern countries due to unemployment or in search for greener pastures. There have been a number of reported incidences of death, rape, and other forms of abuse. Yet, sending countries that have signed agreements with receiving countries do not have proper mechanisms to monitor what is happening to domestic workers working abroad and existing laws and policies are not being enforced.

With poverty at the family level still constituting an important challenge, child labour and especially child domestic work remains a big problem in Africa.

There is still a lot of work to be done to organise domestic workers in African countries. There are currently only 20 countries with trade unions for domestic workers, and existing trade unions are still not as strong as they could be.

Our plan for the future is to continue strengthening domestic workers through training programmes, organizing more domestic workers organisations in different countries, and campaigning for the ratification of C189. 

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