‘The backbone of this economy’: Fighting for housekeepers' rights in South Africa

Why We Wrote This

People entrust housekeepers with some of their most intimate needs: folding their clothes, raising their children, preparing their food. But that doesn’t mean they respect their rights, and Pinky Mashiane is on a mission to change that.

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
Activist Pinky Mashiane talks to domestic workers in Benoni, a suburb of Johannesburg, about their rights as workers, including the minimum wage, working hours, and sick leave.

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For three decades, Pinky Mashiane has been cleaning houses, like her mother before her. Raised by her grandparents, while her mom worked as a live-in maid for a white family, she left school in 10th grade to do the same.

Today, she’s still a domestic worker. She’s also the co-founder of a union, and an activist educating South Africa’s more than 1 million domestic workers about their rights. It’s a massive labor force that keeps the dramatically unequal country’s middle-class homes tidy, and their children cared for – but a group as exploitable as it is invisible, and often abused.

“We have beautiful laws in this country [for workers’ rights], but there isn’t enough follow-through,” says Ms. Mashiane. So she decided to become that follow-through herself. 

When she is not scrubbing dishes or ironing socks – and sometimes even when she is – she is organizing protests for better wages and escorting her colleagues to court. She has helped wage a seven-year court battle that recently secured rights for domestic workers in a compensation law from which they had been excluded.

“People here love to say their domestic worker is like family,” says Ms. Mashiane. “But who would treat a family member like that?”

In a thick blue notebook, in a neat round script, activist Pinky Mashiane keeps a list of women she has met.

There is Zodwa*, who told Ms. Mashiane that she was paid less than $5 a day to work full time as a maid in a suburban home; Thandi*, whose employer kept her ID as collateral so she wouldn’t steal; and Buhle*, whose boss once called her a baboon and told her to go back to her own country.

The notebook is a testament to an everyday form of injustice that pulses just beneath the surface of South African life. More than a million people here, most of them women, are domestic workers, a catch-all term for the massive labor force that keeps the country’s middle-class homes tidy, their hedges clipped, and their children cared for.

“Domestic work is the backbone of this economy,” says Kelebogile Khunou, a researcher at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI). “The work they do makes all other work possible.”

In South Africa, the world’s most unequal society, cheap domestic help is a foregone conclusion for those who can afford it, as unconsidered as buying groceries or paying the rent. For those who do the work, meanwhile, it is often one of very few choices. The result is a workforce as exploitable as it is invisible.

“We have beautiful laws in this country [for workers’ rights], but there isn’t enough follow-through,” says Ms. Mashiane, who has cleaned houses for three decades.

So she decided to become that follow-through herself. When she is not scrubbing dishes or ironing socks – and sometimes even when she is – she is organizing protests for better wages and escorting her colleagues to court. She has helped wage a seven-year court battle that recently secured rights for domestic workers in a workers’ compensation law from which they had long been excluded. And in 2018, she co-founded her own union for domestic workers, the United Domestic Workers of South Africa. She now spends her weekends canvassing to prospective members about their rights, and recording their complaints in her blue notebook.

It is slow and often tedious work. Unlike most workers, domestic workers don’t share a workplace, or a single boss. In a country with formal unemployment near 30%, many see themselves as disposable if they complain or demand too much. And then there is the strange intimacy of working in someone else’s private space.

“People here love to say their domestic worker is like family,” says Ms. Mashiane, whose voice crackles with rage when she speaks about her activism. “But who would treat a family member like that?” 

When she says “like that,” she is referring to any number of maltreatments she sees on a weekly basis. On a recent Sunday afternoon, the summer sun hot and furious above, she sat beneath a tree across the road from a shack settlement in the Johannesburg suburb of Benoni and listened to the 15 or so women gathered before her ask about problems they were having at work.

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
Activist Pinky Mashiane takes notes about problems women face as domestic workers. “We have beautiful laws in this country [for workers’ rights], but there isn’t enough follow-through,” says Ms. Mashiane, who has cleaned houses for three decades.

“Does my employer have to pay overtime if I work after hours?” one asked. (Yes.)

“Am I allowed to be paid less than $1 an hour?” ventured another. (No, because that’s the minimum wage for maids.)

On average, a domestic worker in South Africa takes home around $183 a month, which must support a family of about four people, according to a study by SweepSouth, a digital booking service for cleaners. Only 15% reported receiving any paid leave, and 16% said they had been verbally or physically abused at work.

Like millions of South African women, Ms. Mashiane has domestic work in her blood. She was raised by her grandparents while her mother worked as a live-in maid for a white family in another town.

That, she learned young, is what you do: Take care of other people’s families so that you can take care of your own.  

So when she was in 10th grade, she left school to do the same. Each day, she mopped floors and scrubbed dishes. And each night, she stayed up late studying by correspondence for her high school diploma.

The work was hard, she says, but it could have been dignified if not for the wages. Sometimes at the end of a month, she remembers, her employers would offer her old furniture or used clothes, claiming they had run out of cash to pay her.

“I was so angry. I was a breadwinner for my family,” she says. But this was apartheid South Africa. And this was how things had always been.

Karen Norris/Staff

It was only a decade later in the early 2000s, when Ms. Mashiane joined a union, that she realized that in the new South Africa, there were laws in place to protect people like her. The information lit a fire under her, and she began informally working as a negotiator for fellow domestic workers in conflicts with their bosses.

In 2012, she was reading a newspaper when she stumbled across a short brief about a domestic worker named Maria Mahlangu who had slipped and drowned in her employer’s swimming pool. At the time, domestic workers weren’t included in the law that provided compensation for workers injured or killed on the job.

Ms. Mashiane couldn’t believe it. So she helped the family find a lawyer, and for the next seven years shepherded them through court dates and media interviews. Finally, earlier this year, a court ruled that the provisions barring domestic workers were unconstitutional. (That change must now be confirmed by the country’s Constitutional Court. A court will hear the challenge, brought by lawyers from Ms. Khunou’s organization, SERI, next year.)

To Ms. Mashiane, it’s proof of the value of just showing up. “When you try to silence me,” she says, “I will sing like a bird.”

But she has struggled to build membership in her union. Ms. Mashiane says she counts 300 members, but some months, only 10 people pay the dues of 20 rand ($1.36). When she goes out each weekend to give presentations to domestic workers in far-flung suburbs of Pretoria and neighboring Johannesburg, she often pays her own way to get there.

Still, she says these meetings are essential for explaining to domestic workers that they have rights at all.

“I’ve learned that if I don’t speak up, nothing will change,” says Pauline Mnisi, who came to the Benoni meeting to ask advice about a boss who keeps her at work six days a week without paying overtime. “Ma Pinky is telling us we have to fight.”

As the shade peels back from the space under the tree where the women have gathered, Ms. Mashiane shuts her notebook. After nearly two hours, she has a long list of problems she’s promised to follow up on. There are labor inspectors to be called and unfair dismissal complaints to be lodged. But for now, she needs to catch the first of four buses that will take her home, to a township north of Pretoria.

Tomorrow, after all, she has a house to clean.

*Women’s names have been changed to protect their privacy around ongoing workplace disputes.

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