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Domestic workers unite

On 28 November last year, there was a big meeting in Cape Town. People came from all over South Africa. They were all domestic workers. They came together to talk about starting a new union for domestic workers.

The East London Domestic Workers Union and the Port Elizabeth Domes­tic Workers Union came. The National Domestic Workers Union from Natal and the Domestic Workers Union from Cape Town were there. And the South African Domestic Workers Association from Johannesburg also drove all the way to Cape Town.

It was easy to find the meeting because you could hear people singing from a long way off. But people did not come together just to sing. They came to the meeting as five different unions but they wanted to leave the meeting as one, new union.


Sasha, a worker from SADWA — the South African Domestic Workers Association spoke first. He spoke about how the different unions came together.

“For a long time we worked separate­ly,” said Sasha. “Then in 1984 we met in Johannesburg to talk about laws to help domestic workers. We all chose people to go and talk to the Minister of Manpower.

“People went to Pretoria and saw the Minister. We are still waiting for the Minister to make laws to help domestic workers. But we did not go to Pretoria for nothing. Since that time, we worked together. And that is how we came to be at this meeting today.


When Sasha finished talking, people started the real business. They spoke about a name for the new union. Everyone agreed — SADWU — the South African Domestic Workers Union.

Then they chose people for the executive committee. Florrie de Villiers was chosen as the secretary and Violet Motlhasedi was made the President. Everyone clapped to show that they were proud of their new leaders.


People spoke about what they thought SADWU must do. Eunice Baleka of Cape Town spoke about the money that domestic workers earn. Everyone agreed that they get too little money. They all said SADWU must fight so that domestic workers do not get less than R200 a month.

Then Agnes Vilikazi of Johannesburg spoke. She said, “We do not get nice ‘offs’. We don’t get weekends and holidays off. This is not right.

“And there is overtime,” Agnes went on. “When there are visitors, you work late. And if your employers go out, you stay late to look after the children. They come home at one o’clock or two o’clock in the morning. Then it’s Thank you, nanny’ but they don’t pay you overtime.”

Every one at the meeting agreed that domestic workers must get overtime pay. And if domestic workers are sick, they must get sick leave. And they must get pensions and maternity leave. These are the rights that SADWU will fight for.


People talked late into the night. They were still talking the next day. But by lunch time the meeting was over. People knew they must leave to get back to work in good time.

People were happy when they left. They had done what they wanted to do — they were all leaving as members of the same union — SADWU.


Not long after the meeting, Learn and Teach went to the new SADWU offices in Johannesburg. We wanted to talk to Violet Motlhasedi, the new president. We wanted to know more about the small, thin woman we saw at the SADWU meeting in Cape Town.

Violet was not at the offices. She was at work. The people at the offices told us to come back on Thursday – Violet’s day off and the day that she comes to the office.

So we went back on Thursday. Violet was late because there was no trans­port into town. She smiled when we asked her to talk to us.


We asked Violet to tell us about herself. Violet laughed. She said, “But I am no different to other domes­tic workers. My home is in Zeerust. I finished Std 6 at school but then I wanted to come and work in Johannesburg, like my friends.

“I came to Johannesburg in 1970. I remember my first job — I got R8 a month and my employer screamed at me all the time. I thought that if you were a domestic worker, it was normal for your employer to shout. So I never got angry. But I only stayed there for three months.

“I am very happy where I work now. I have worked there for ten years. My ‘madam’ is well-trained and my husband lives with me. But my daugh­ter lives with my sister in Zeerust. She doesn’t know me well and that makes my heart sore.”


Learn and Teach asked Violet how she felt about being the President of SADWU. “I was very upset when I heard I was the President,” Violet said. “I didn’t know what it meant. To me a president is P.W. Botha or Mangope and I didn’t want to be like them. I also thought that I must leave my job to work in the office.

“But now I feel better. I think it is very important that I still do domestic work. If I talk to an employer, she cannot turn around and say I don’t know what I am saying. I know because I am a domestic worker myself.”


“I come to the SADWU offices every Thursday. Everyone on the SADWU committee tries to do this. It helps us to know what is happening in the office. But if there is a problem, or we are planning something special, then I come in at weekends too.

“Sometimes my husband is very unhappy about me spending so much time at the SADWU offices. It is difficult, working at my job, working for the union and trying to keep him happy. But my work for the union is very important for me.

“I was a member of SADWA before. In fact, I was on the executive committee of SADWA. And before SADWA started I used to work with DWEP — the Domestic Workers and Employers Project. I taught people to sew at one of their centres.”


“I think it is very important for domes­tic workers to join a union. And I think it is very important that all the unions have come together. It makes us stronger. And if we are stronger, then we can fight for our rights better.

“It is very difficult organising domestic workers because domestic workers work alone. SADWU hopes to start street committees. We will try to get domestic workers in one street to join SADWU. Then we will go onto the next street and so on.

“We also think that street committees will help people. If there is a bad employer in the street, everyone will know about them. They will know not go to work for them.”


Violet told us that she had one last thing she wanted to say before we left. “Many domestic workers think they are not as good as other people,” Violet said. “They put themselves down. I al­ways did that. If people asked me where I worked, I told them I worked at the shops.

“But now I feel proud to be a domestic worker. And I know that I am as good as anyone else. I know my job well. I can bake and sew and look after a house. I hope that SADWU, will make all domestic workers feel proud — proud of themselves and proud of their work”


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