Nelson Mandela Foundation

SADSAWU's Eunice DhlaDhla Nelson Mandela Foundation

Legislation governing domestic work needs to be better implemented and its implementation more closely monitored.

That was the conclusion drawn at a dialogue on domestic work hosted on 24 November 2021 by the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI). The hybrid event, which took place online and in person at the Foundation in Houghton, Johannesburg, marked the one-year anniversary of the Constitutional Court’s judgement that domestic workers are legally employees and are entitled to compensation for workplace injuries under the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act (Coida). 

The ruling, commonly called the “Mahlangu judgement”, is a victory for domestic workers and their dependants, said SERI Executive Director Nomzamo Zondo.

The case deals with a 2012 tragedy in which domestic worker Maria Mahlangu drowned in her employer’s swimming pool. Ms Mahlangu’s daughter, Sylvia Mahlangu, and the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU) successfully challenged the constitutionality of a section of COIDA that expressly excluded domestic workers from the definition of an “employee”. The Constitutional Court handed down its ruling on 19 November 2020.

“Our hope is that this meeting can provide for better understanding of the challenges facing the sector and highlight opportunities for collaboration between domestic worker organisations, employers, civil society organisations and government,” Zondo said.

She added that while the judgement is powerful, there is a lot of work to be done to ensure that domestic workers know they are covered by COIDA, that their employers know they are covered, and that those who have been injured or who have fallen ill at work after 1994 are compensated. The Act also entitles domestic workers’ beneficiaries compensation for their death, injury or illness. 

Foundation CE, Sello Hatang, whose mother was a domestic worker, said the Mahlangu judgment takes South Africa another step away from its racist past, and that this past must be fully confronted if the South African nation is to heal from its apartheid and colonial traumas.

Under apartheid, domestic workers lived difficult lives, enduring extreme racial prejudice and demeaning working conditions, he said. Too often this situation has not improved 

Keynote speaker Eunice Dhladhla, Assistant Secretary General of Sadsawu, painted a picture of continuing ill-treatment of, and prejudice against, domestic workers. 

Domestic workers are central to the effective operation of households, Dhladhla said. Their hours are long and they know how the household is run, yet they do not receive the appreciation they deserve. She ended her speech with a plea for better recognition of domestic workers’ value. 

Albert van der Merwe, Assistant General Secretary of the National Employers’ Labour Association, said that the domestic work sector is likely South Africa’s largest employer.