Siphokazi Mdlankomo challenges perceptions of domestic workers in South Africa

Siphokazi Mdlankomo, a domestic worker from Newlands, South Africa, is garnering international attention – and she’s using her new celebrity to call for the equal treatment of domestic workers. Mdlankomo debuted as a contestant on the popular show “MasterChef South Africa” last month and quickly became a fan favorite. The show’s contestants compete against each other in cooking challenges in the hopes of securing a future as a professional chef.

But becoming a chef is not Mdlankomo’s only goal. As noted in her biography for the show and reported last week, she also aims to use her time in the limelight to challenge global perceptions of domestic work and prove that domestic workers are not “second-class citizens.” “People, not only in South Africa, but all over the world should start taking domestic workers much more seriously,” she said. “People need to start thinking of domestic work as any other profession … it’s not just cleaning and cooking, there is far more talent in domestic workers.”

That Mdlankomo lives and works in South Africa is noteworthy. There are approximately 1.15 million domestic workers in the country. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), more than three-quarters of domestic workers in South Africa are female, and their racial breakdown is highly imbalanced. Ninety-one percent of the country’s domestic workers are classified as “African/black” and the remaining nine percent are “Coloured.” Domestic worker employers, however, span all races.

In many ways, South Africa has been a leader in establishing legal protections for domestic workers. The country set requirements for minimum wages and formal employment contracts for domestic workers in 2002 and 2003, and it provides domestic workers with unemployment insurance, skills development opportunities and other resources. It was also one of the first countries to ratify the standards set by the ILO’s Domestic Workers Convention.

Despite these advances, abuse and exploitation of domestic workers is still an issue in the country. Some argue that this is due to a lack of enforcement of the laws. Wages remain low, 70 percent of domestic workers in the country work without a contract, and there are still reports of abuse, disrespect, segregation and racism. Researchers from the Community Agency for Social Enquiry found that many South African domestic workers think their employers view them as inferior and discriminate against them based on their race.

The recent actions of two South African university students exemplify the racism and objectification that still surround domestic work and the women who perform it. Soon after Mdlankomo’s debut, two white University of Pretoria students posted photos of themselves dressed up as domestic workers online, with their faces smeared with brown paint and pillows shoved in their skirts. The photos are a stark reminder of domestic worker stereotypes and the country’s racial history, and they make clear that legal protections do not generate social and cultural change overnight.

The university immediately condemned the students’ behavior, and there was much criticism from South Africans through social media. These reactions suggest awareness among South Africans that racism and ridiculing domestic workers are intolerable, at least in public – and therein lies a big part of the problem. Even though domestic worker employers might know that the mistreatment of domestic workers is socially unacceptable, they may not recognize more subtle forms of exploitation, and what happens in their own homes is ultimately private and hidden behind closed doors.

That’s what makes the reaction to Mdlankomo’s message, her popularity, and her efforts significant. Her presence on the hit show and commitment to using it as a platform to call for respect for domestic workers is helping to make domestic workers more visible to a popular audience. Scholars worldwide have well documented the legal, economic, physical and social forces that contribute to the invisibility and isolation of domestic workers. Pushing domestic workers’ stories, talents and struggles into the public sphere might help counter harmful and dangerous representations that appear all too common, even among a younger generation of university students.

As we noted previously, scholars have long studied media’s impact on public understanding and opinion. For this reason, groups like Migrant Rights have criticized the way media portrayals of domestic workers perpetuate degrading stereotypes that contribute to the mistreatment and abuse of workers. From this perspective, Mdlankomo and her message offer a positive alternative depiction.

News media coverage of Mdlankomo has so far framed her comments as “causing a stir,” “striking a nerve” and “heating up the black servants’ debate.” The fact that her common sense message is controversial and discomforting makes clear that it is necessary. Whether it will have a major impact remains to be seen. In the meantime, Mdlankomo is challenging South Africans’ understanding of domestic workers and confronting them with the need for equal treatment, and that has the potential to generate important and valuable conversations within households and beyond.


(Photo Credit: 702)

Considering that domestic work is mainly carried out by women and girls

Five men on the US Supreme Court decided this week that women workers [a] aren’t really workers and [b] don’t really work. Therefore, women workers don’t deserve the protections, and the power, that a trade union can confer on its members. Many have written on this decision, and many more will. Much of the response has avoided that frontal attack on women workers, preferring instead to focus on labor unions or on household workers. Although the majority opinion doesn’t specify women, it’s clear that the workers under attack are women.

On June 16, 2011, the International Labor Organization recognized as much, when it passed the Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers. The Convention defines domestic work as “work performed in or for a household or households”, and defines domestic worker as “any person engaged in domestic work within an employment relationship.” The ILO was careful to note that its Convention applies to all domestic workers.

But before the ILO launched into the nuts and bolts of decent work for domestic workers, it set the global table, specifying the place of domestic work in the global economy and the place of women and girls in domestic work. In other words, the International Labor Organization recognized and considered women as the key.

And so, without further ado and as an alternative to the narrow, misogynistic world view of the U.S. Supreme Court, here’s a sampling of the opening of the Text of the Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers:

“Recognizing the significant contribution of domestic workers to the global economy, which includes increasing paid job opportunities for women and men workers with family responsibilities, greater scope for caring for ageing populations, children and persons with a disability, and substantial income transfers within and between countries, and

“Considering that domestic work continues to be undervalued and invisible and is mainly carried out by women and girls, many of whom are migrants or members of disadvantaged communities and who are particularly vulnerable to discrimination in respect of conditions of employment and of work, and to other abuses of human rights, and

“Considering also that in developing countries with historically scarce opportunities for formal employment, domestic workers constitute a significant proportion of the national workforce and remain among the most marginalized, ….

“Recognizing the special conditions under which domestic work is carried out that make it desirable to supplement the general standards with standards specific to domestic workers so as to enable them to enjoy their rights fully, and ….

“Having decided upon the adoption of certain proposals concerning decent work for domestic workers, which is the fourth item on the agenda of the session, and

“Having determined that these proposals shall take the form of an international Convention;

“adopts this sixteenth day of June of the year two thousand and eleven the following Convention, which may be cited as the Domestic Workers Convention, 2011.”

(Photo Credit: UN Human Rights)

Domestic workers demand dignity, respect, and power

Earlier this week, the Sunday Nation described the `ordeal’ of Kenyan domestic workers in Arab `slave markets’. The story focused on Mwanaisha Hussein, a Kenyan woman who left her home to work in Jeddah.

The story is in many ways typical. Mwanaisha Hussein had a job in Kenya, as a store clerk, and wanted something better. She heard about jobs in Saudi Arabia, and signed up. Signing up involved raising funds, going into debt. The promise and allure of better jobs, and better pay, were strong.  When she arrived in Saudi Arabia she found, first, difficult to terrible working conditions; second, extreme and intensifying physical and emotional abuse; third, almost absolute confinement. Desperate, she jumped from a third floor opening she created by breaking through the air conditioner vent. She was taken to hospital, where police took her report … sort of. They would not listen to any accounts of torture or abuse. Finally, with some assistance, she made it to the Kenyan embassy and, somehow, made it home to Kenya.

Today, she says, “The conditions are poor, and there is little food. It’s just horrible. I left a job here in Kenya and wasted eight months of my life. Not only that, I nearly died. I’d never go back. I’d never recommend it for anyone. I’d rather make Sh100 a day in my country.”

It’s a typical story.

In June of this year, the Kenyan government barred Kenyan women from seeking employment in Saudi Arabia. This month Nepal banned women under 30 from working in Gulf States. These bans are typical State responses. Indonesia at one point this year banned women from working in Malaysia. The Philippines has imposed bans at various times.

So, how is Hussein’s story typical?

First, Mwanaisha Hussein is not one of the poorest of the poor. Quite the opposite, she is an ambitious woman worker who sought to improve her lot. She is precisely not a pathetic participant in the narrative of the plight of the domestic worker.

Second, Mwanaisha Hussein is not a domestic worker in Kenya. Most transnational domestic workers aren’t domestic workers in their own home countries. In Kenya, for example, domestic workers are among the lowest paid workers in the land. Further, they are paid approximately 3.5 times less than domestic workers in South Africa. South African domestic workers are paid five times less than in the United Kingdom. From London to Johannesburg to Nairobi, it’s not so much a chain or ladder as a precipitously slippery slope. Kenyan domestic workers would be very hard pressed to come up with the $3000 plus it takes to get a job in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else overseas.

The story of transnational domestic workers must always be placed alongside the story of national domestic workers, especially when the State suddenly claims to care about women workers.

How does the State claim to care about its transnational women workers? By `protecting’ them from entering into `perilous’ labor markets. Does the State consult with domestic workers? No. It simply proceeds to a politics of protection.

That politics of protection is profoundly gendered and gendering. It is the virile State protecting the vulnerable woman worker.  In ancient Roman law, according to Yan Thomas, women could not exercise the `virile office’ of autonomous actions. Later, in the quickly changing world of twelfth to fifteenth century Europe, as women entered into more and more public spaces, male leaders worked night and day to `educate’ women into their basic vulnerability and need to be protected. As Carla Casagrande notes, “We do not know how many Western women in the Middle Ages lived quietly within the home, church, or convent walls, obediently listening to learned, loquacious men who imposed all sorts of rules and regulations on them…. All we know is that women had to deal daily with these men, entrusted by society (and supported by a precise ideology) with the delicate task of supporting their bodies and souls. Part of the history of women lies, therefore, in the history of these words, spoken arrogantly, affectionately, and sometimes anxiously.”

When it comes to `protecting’ women, not much has changed in the last thousand years. Today, we do not know how many Western, African, Asian, Latin American women deal daily with these men. The scale of our not knowing has expanded exponentially.

Let’s change the story. Stop talking about protecting women workers. Don’t protect domestic workers; protect domestic workers’ rights. That’s a major point of the International Labor Organization Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers. Domestic workers’ rights should be protected because workers’ rights should be protected. Period. Not because women are vulnerable or need protection.

Domestic workers want dignity, respect, and power. That’s the lesson this week of the campaign in California to pass the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. It’s as well the lesson, in Namibia, of the recently formed Domestic Workers’ Wages Commission. And it’s the lesson Mwanaisha Hussein teaches. Slavery is wrong. No one knows that better than the worker herself. As Mwanaisha Hussein explains, death is preferable to death-in-life. Decent work is the only option. That only happens when women workers organize themselves.



(Photo Credit: A Celebration of Women)


Domestic workers declare war on the War on Women

Last week, domestic workers declared war on the War on Women.

The current domestic laborers’ market has been forged in the most recent phase of globalization – understood, too briefly, as the political economy of globalized production serving a global market – that began in the 1970s. The last four decades have been marked by the rise of global cities, and mega-slums. Already, more than half the world population is urban. Soon, very soon, more than half the world population will live in slums. A planet of slums beckons.

Cities are the place, and slums are the face of urban poverty in the new millennium. And that face is a woman’s face “Women bear the brunt of problems associated with slum life.”

Global cities produce mega-slums and slum cities. Meanwhile, global cities’ 25-hour-a-day, 8-day-a-week so-called service economies require large numbers of easily available, and replaceable, and cheap domestic workers who make sure the beds are made; the food prepared and tasty; the children and the elders cared for; the houses swept; and the structures of household, community, regional, national and global patriarchy solidified and intensified. Political economists tell us that the new economies produced social workers, workers in the information sector whose work is more than and different from the binary of boss and worker. Tell that to the maids and nannies, childcare and eldercare providers (as well as the hotel and office cleaners, and sex workers) across the globe who every day, and every night, make sure everything is neat, tidy and available. It’s a world economy in which women, especially women of color, are forced to care.

In order to meet this demand, nation-States, the Philippines most notably, have turned themselves inside out and, presto, turned into mega-brokerage houses for mass migrations of domestic workers. Global cities demanded, and created, transnational domestic labor, which became one of the fastest growing, and largest, labor sectors of the world economy.

Women workers built the global economy, which came to rely, violently, on women workers. The feminization of the new industrial workforce produced the feminization of migration, which in turn produced the feminization of survival, and all of it, the whole system, sits heavily, and precariously, on the shoulders and in the arms of domestic workers.

That is one reason that the ILO Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers, passed last week, is called a landmark treaty, a milestone. Here is a key section from that document:

“Considering that domestic work continues to be undervalued and invisible and is mainly carried out by women and girls, many of whom are migrants or members of disadvantaged communities and who are particularly vulnerable to discrimination in respect of conditions of employment and of work, and to other abuses of human rights, and

Considering also that in developing countries with historically scarce opportunities for formal employment, domestic workers constitute a significant proportion of the national workforce and remain among the most marginalized …

Recognizing the special conditions under which domestic work is carried out that make it desirable to supplement the general standards with standards specific to domestic workers so as to enable them to enjoy their rights fully.”

Women and girls are “the special conditions under which domestic work is carried out.”

“Special conditions”.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, W.E.B Du Bois famously noted “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.” For Du Bois the color line came down to a simple, and impossible, question: “How does it feel to be a problem?” Today, the problem of the Twenty First Century continues to be the problem of the color line, and the question now is, “How does it feel to be a special condition?”

Domestic workers around the world, and in our neighborhoods, recognize that question as part of a global War on Women, and they have had enough. Domestic workers refuse to be ghosts in the machinery of “special conditions.” They have declared war on the War on Women. Step up, step up, it’s not too late to enlist.

(Photo Credit: David Swanson / IRIN / The New Humanitarian)