Durban - South African domestic workers face shocking levels of sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace, research conducted for Hlanganisa Institute of Development Southern Africa (Hlanganisa) and Izwi Domestic Workers’ Alliance (Izwi), has revealed.
The research, which focused gender-based violence faced by domestic workers in their workplaces in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape, uncovered shocking levels of abuse and sexual harassment by employers, with few cases reported to the police.
Conducted in July and August during the Covid-19 lockdown when gender-based violence intensified across the country, the research involved interviews with female domestic workers who were mostly above the age of 35. Just 11% of respondents were below the age of 35, and 11% were older than 50. The majority, 78%, were between the ages of 35 and 50. Half of the respondents were South African and the other half Zimbabwean.
Researchers interviewed domestic workers, Department of Labour officials, academics, domestic worker unions and civil society organisations supporting domestic workers.
During the research, four interviewees mentioned cases of rape or sexual assault. In other cases, domestic workers were shown pornography, forced to touch employers and assaulted sexually.
The research found that GBV experienced in the domestic work sector included male employers walking around the house without clothes; exposing their private parts to domestic workers; walking into domestic workers’ rooms during their private time at all hours; engineering opportunities for domestic workers to bring them something while employers are bathing or taking a shower and asking domestic workers to have sex with them for extra pay.
Employers also forced domestic workers to have sex or oral sex; commented on domestic workers’ bodies and touched their breasts or buttocks; engineered for domestic workers to be fired when they refused to be subjected to sexual violation; stalked their domestic workers on social media and spying on them and using that information in their GBV infractions.
According to the research, in one case, a domestic worker, *Nomsa had reported to Izwi that her employer’s teenage son had told her she must stop wearing underwear when she cleans.
“Terrified of his intentions but afraid of being fired, Nomsa decided not to tell her boss. The teenager accosted her a second time, forcing her to massage him in inappropriate places. When she approached the boy’s father, her employer, he denounced her as a liar, accused her of abusing his son, and dismissed her immediately. When she went home and told her husband of 17 years, he made accusations, and eventually divorced her. The trauma also impacted her relationship with her teenage son,” Izwi reported.
Domestic workers reported that employers saw them as vulnerable because they were “the poorest of the poor” and believed this meant they could be manipulated. Some reported that employers were aware that workers desperately needed their incomes and many reported feeling powerless to deal with abuse.
They also often did not report any GBV experience because of fear of losing their jobs and that they would not be believed, as well as there being minimal alternatives in the job market. They also said they feared secondary harassment and that nothing would be done if they reported it.
Some domestic workers who reported cases to their employers, other family members, unions and the police experienced mixed results.
In just 22% of cases where workers reported abuse to female employers or family members, are their issues taken seriously, believed or addressed.
“In 100% of the cases reported to Ilizwi and SADSAWU (South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union), the cases were taken seriously. In only 33% of the rape cases (four were reported) that were reported to the police, according to this research, were the cases taken seriously, without meddling to their conclusion. The other case is still in progress, and it was reported in 2014, reviewed midway because of police meddling and in another, the domestic worker was raped again at the police station,” the report found.
Maggie Mthombeni, case manager of Izwi Domestic Workers’ Alliance, said survivors of GBV in the domestic workplace were “very rarely” able to report the abuse.
“Without the protections available to corporate employees, and often without an employment contract, they are forced to report to either the perpetrator himself or his wife. Workers choosing to go to the police have been accused of lying, even if a case is opened. No matter what avenue she reports through, she will almost inevitably lose her job. Her only choice becomes silence,” Mthombeni said.
The report concluded that domestic workers “continue to suffer because of structural patriarchy, capitalism and racism”.
Researchers recommended that the Department of Labour improve the monitoring of national policies to improve the working and living conditions of domestic workers. This included the expansion of the Department of Labour’s inspectorate for the benefit of domestic workers and other vulnerable sectors. They also recommended that the government ratifies the International Labour Organisation Convention 190 on Violence and Harassment in the World of Work.
The UN recognises South Africa as the country with the worst GBV in the world. *Name has been changed