There’s a story of a hungry jackal and two fowls. The jackal went to the village to find some fowls for lunch. The fowls saw the jackal, and quickly climbed up a tree for safety.
The jackal stood at the bottom of the tree and said: “Don’t worry, I’m not really a jackal. I’m a dog. Come down from the tree and I will protect you. The fowls climbed down, and the jackal ate them both.
Domestic workers, or “kitchen workers” as they are called in the townships, are like the “cheated fowls”. Their employers promise them protection against hunger, but hunger rules their lives.
Some are hungry for peace from the screaming “madams”. Many are hungry for the right to live with their families. But all are hungry for better wages.
All they get is some ‘lozzies’ from their employers’ pockets. And this loose change they get paid is not enough to cover all their needs.
Learn and Teach heard these stories — and much more — when we spent a day at the Johannesburg offices of the South African Domestic Workers’ Union (SADWU).
The offices are in the Wits Technikon building in Wanderers Street, near Park Station. The posters on the walls carry the message of the time — organise the unorganised!
BUILDING THE UNION
Thursday is “maids day off”, and so we knew that we would find some domestic workers in the office. But we were surprised at the large number of workers who were there. Aren’t domestic workers supposed to be difficult to organise?!
“Yes, it’s true, domestic workers are difficult to organise,” says SADWU organiser, Charity Matsaneng. “The bosses hide them in the backyards. They have divorced them from their communities.
“In some houses, there are dogs that do not allow us to get inside the yard. At other houses, the bosses serve in the police and defence forces. They become very angry when they see people from the union.”
But the union has its own way of organising, says Charity. “We make friends with our members and make appointments to see them on weekends. They invite their friends to come and meet us so we can tell them about the union.
“The new members will then tell others about the union and so on. So as you can see, our members are helping to build their own organisation.”
THE MAIN PROBLEMS
The workers in the SADWU office were divided into two groups. “We divide the workers into groups to speed up our work so that all the visitors will get helped,” says Patricia Khoza, a SADWU official. “In one group we sign up workers who have come to join the union. In the other group we try to help workers who come with problems.”
We listened to the workers as they told the union’s officials their problems. The main problems are the low wages they earn and getting fired without notice.
But domestic workers also have other problems, says Roseline Naapo. She is SADWU’s case officer in Johannesburg. “We get many different cases reported in this office. For example, some workers complain of working for many hours in a day. Some are not given day-offs to visit their families during the year.”
LONG SERVICE, LOW PAY
Many of the women we spoke to were ‘heavy weight kitchen workers’. They have knocked out seven solid years working for one employer. Some have stayed in the ring with one employer for as long as 17 years.But working for the same employer for many years is no passport to earning better wages for kitchen workers. One of the women, Elizabeth Baloyi, spoke angrily of the ups-and-downs of her life. “It’s now seven years I’m working for my employers. It is a long service. But I earn only R170 per month. I’m failing to buy my family things they need.”
Elizabeth’s friend, Emily Makhubela, said to her: “But your salary is better than mine. I have also worked for seven years for the same employer, but I earn only R140 per month.”
A young man, Morris Mpye, jumped into the women’s discussion. He is a voluntary worker who helps SADWU officials on Thursdays.
He had some advice for Emily: “Comrade, what you are saying is not very helpful. You are telling this comrade here that she should not complain about her wages because she gets more than you. How can one wage be better than the other if they are both less than a living wage?”
NOTHING TO REAP
“Kitchen workers” who look after their employers children are like farmers working in their fields. Everyday they watch their crops grow.
But for domestic workers, when their plants are big enough for reaping, they have nothing to reap. The employers’ kids will look after their own parents. And they will forget about the people who brought them up.
Mable Motlhaedi spoke about bringing up her employer’s children. “I took pains to make sure that they grew up properly. But they forget that they are grown-up now because of me.”
As we spoke to the workers, we saw a woman seated in the corner of the office. She was reading English Modern Grade. We thought she was one of SADWU’s officials. But she said she worked as a domestic worker in Randburg. Her name is Veronica Motibakeledi.
Veronica said the same book she was reading made her lose her job.’i looked after my madam’s baby for three years — but she did not allow me to visit my family in Kuruman. I kept on complaining until she allowed me.”
But Veronica says things became worse this year after she registered at a night school for standard eight. “My madam told me to stop studying. I did not agree to leave my studies. So she fired me. Now I am seeking a job.”
SOMETHING TO LAUGH AT
SADWU’s offices were not only full of people with sad faces. There was also laughter in the offices. The workers were telling jokes that come from the kitchens.
Josephine Njiyako says they give their bosses nicknames. “One woman calls her boss ‘Mandevu’. His beard is so big — it makes you think of putting animals out to graze on his hidden face. His wife is called ‘Mafutha’. She is fat, and looks as if she could break a chair by just trying to sit on it!”
The “kitchen workers” said nicknames let them talk freely. If the employers overhear them, they do not know who and what the workers are speaking about.
TIME FOR ‘UMGABULO’
There is something we found interesting in one of SADWU’s offices. It is used as an office, and also as a classroom by the union’s officials. There is a blackboard hanging on the wall.
After the union officials had spoken to the workers, the two groups came together. An organiser, Miriam Khoza, stood up and went to the blackboard with a piece of chalk in her hand.
Miriam said to her class: “Comrades, this is the time for ‘umgabulo’. We want to talk about the history and the formation of our trade union.”
Miriam gave a moving lesson to her comrades. She was younger than all of them — but it did not matter. She was warm and treated her “pupils” with respect. Miriam is a real people’s teacher.
We left SADWU at four o’ clock after the lesson ended. On the way back to our office we thought about how much we had learned about the union and the heavy burdens that domestic workers must carry.
We saw how hard the SADWU officials work, and how they give all of their hearts to their task. We were moved by the fighting spirit of the members and the way they give hope and courage to each other.
Domestic workers may be like the cheated fowls. But not for much longer. They are on the march — and the “hungry jackals” better not stand in their way!
NEW WORDS appointment — making a time to see somebody discussion — a talk or a chat voluntary worker — somebody who works for nothing because they believe the work is important. a heavy burden — a heavy load of troubles and problems