By Mary Nkonyana
I remember the day I met Virginia. It was the 22nd of October, past 4 pm and I was on my way home from work as a domestic worker. The weather was nice and cool but I was tired because of my work. I approached her and asked her how her work was? She said it was not good. I asked her to explain. We walked together on the way to the station. She told me she does house cleaning, washing, cleaning the house blinds and that she felt like leaving the job. I asked her what time she starts and ends work. Virginia informed me that she works from 7 am to 4 pm.
I informed her that she had a right to speak to her boss about her unfair working hours. She asked me what this meant. I told her that work hours are 8 hours or less and that she has rights just like her employer. This information was new to her. I gave her a document that showed her what her rights were as a domestic worker and I left her my contact details as it was getting late. I gave her time to read and then I promised to call her the following day. I told her to join the union (SADSAWU) as they could help her.
That same day she called me to ask me how to join the union. She became a paid member and she approached her boss about her long hours and heavy load of work. After her talk with him, it’s much better.
SADSAWU is the South African Domestic Services and Allied Workers Union. They help many women like Virginia. This union was formed in 2000. The union is not just a place for complaints. It also encourages workers to stand up for themselves and find their own voice.
Recruiting of domestic workers is important to me because it helps to build a strong union, adding more workers and educating them. We also want future young women leaders. To recruit is not easy, especially if you don’t know about workers’ rights and labour laws. We give pamphlets and newsletters, and tell people something that will make them more interested in knowing about their rights. What makes domestic workers join is the awareness that they don’t know their rights. Mostly we go door to door, on trains and taxis, and in parks, where we can find more than one worker.
That is an ongoing journey because after education there must be practice of what they have learned and sharing with others, especially the young workers. It is more difficult to bring young workers in as members. They are still ashamed and afraid to be known as domestic workers. I used to also be ashamed like them but I now fully understand the meaning of domestic work.
Another thing is that it is harder to approach men because they feel “it’s not for us it’s only for women”. Men who are gardeners don’t understand the word ‘domestic’. Only those who clean inside a house are seen as domestic workers. But domestic work also covers care givers, child minders, cleaners, gardeners and chauffeurs. It has been a challenge to bring two men in and sign them as members. It was like a debate because they asked me “who told you I am a domestic worker, why are you calling me a domestic worker as I am not cleaning in my bosses’ house?” I had to make sure that I understand, give good reasons, have courage, and make them feel comfortable.
I was not involved in the Gender Action Learning process but I saw the changes that happened because of that in SADSAWU. The opening of new branches came from my colleagues who were very much involved in the process. The idea was to take the union to the people. It was difficult to bring all the workers to the office for meetings and workshops so new branches were opened. My colleagues puts it nicely when she says “the union is not only a union but it’s a home to those who are broken-hearted and need comfort and support”. At the end of the day, we go back to where we started and realize it is not only a place to think but also, most importantly, a place to share and practice.
Mary Nkonyana is a participant in our Gender Action Learning process in South Africa.