Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Many foreign nationals who are employed as domestic workers in SA are underpaid and coerced into working long hours‚ according to unionists.

In extreme cases‚ they even have their identity documents withheld‚ according to Sizwe Pamla‚ national spokesperson for the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu).

The issue came to the fore this week due to a wrangle between former education minister Mduduzi Manana and his domestic worker, a Zimbabwean national.

The Cosatu-aligned South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (Sadsawu) on Tuesday encouraged cleaners‚ including foreigners‚ to resist exploitation by their employers.

"[It is common for] employers looking for domestic workers to ask the person if she is a South African. If she is a South African‚ they don’t take her. They say South Africans think that they are smart. These employers want migrant workers‚ not because they love them‚ but because they will be able to pay a low wage‚" said the union’s assistant general secretary‚ Eunice Dladla.

She said domestic workers from other parts of the continent were afraid to seek help‚ but the union was willing to assist them.

"They are exploited easily because they are scared to come out and report bad incidents they have with their employers. They are scared that if they come to the union‚ they will be dismissed at work.

"They also think we are working hand-in-glove with the Department of Home Affairs so if they come to us we may call the department to deport them.

"… We are not saying we can win all cases‚ but we are saying it would help them to have somebody to assist in the relations with their employers."

Unfair working hours is the most common complaint the union receives.

Dladla elaborated: "Those workers who do come to us complain about working long hours without overtime payment‚ low wages and discrimination they endure in their work."

Cosatu’s Pamla said: "The federation is appalled by a spike in the incidents of abuse of domestic workers in SA. Many foreign nationals who are employed as domestic workers are underpaid and sometimes have their identity documents withheld.

"It is unacceptable that while the abuse of domestic workers is rampant‚ we have seen few prosecutions‚ convictions‚ or punishments for these violations. We call on the Department of Labour to increase its monitoring and enforcement mechanisms to help domestic workers from sexual and emotional abuse…. We are also urging the Human Rights Commission to do more to protect these vulnerable workers."

Pamla said it was not enough that SA had adopted the Convention on Domestic Workers by the International Labour Organisation. "We need to see more deliberate action to implement the convention."