SA diplomat kept domestic work

SA diplomat kept domestic worker as ‘serf’ in Ireland

In a case that highlights the complex relationship between madams and maids in South Africa, a diplomat took her Pretoria domestic worker to Ireland – while still paying her South African wages and demanding 17-hour workdays

SA diplomat kept domestic work


No news is always good news in foreign affairs, it seems – especially where the diplomatic corps’ private lives are involved. Thobeka Dlamini must surely be hoping for a bit of quiet after allegations that she paid a domestic worker a fraction of the legal minimum in Ireland while also forcing her to work 17-hour days.

Dlamini, a chargé d’affaires at the South African embassy in Dublin, brought the domestic worker to Ireland from Dlamini’s home in Pretoria. The domestic worker, whose name is not known, accuses Dlamini of paying her  just €1.60 per hour (about R24) while the legal minimum wage in the country was â‚¬8.65 for an adult over 19 (about R128.46/hour).

The domestic worker went on to file a complaint with the Irish authorities after being hospitalised. Dlamini claims that the domestic worker had never complained about her conditions of employment, and that a copy of the contract between herself and the domestic worker had been with the embassy as a condition of securing a visa for the domestic worker in the first place. However, embassy staff – in a turn of events that will shock no one used to dealing with South African bureaucracy – claim to have no proof that the documents in question were in fact submitted to them.

It may well be that the domestic worker only learned of Ireland’s minimum wage after she had adjusted to the allegedly punishing work schedule at Dlamini’s residence. If so, the domestic worker can take heart at the fate of Devyani Khobragade, the New York deputy consul for India, who caused a scandal after it emerged that she had demanded 100-hour workweeks from a domestic worker, also brought across from India, and paid her around a tenth of the prevailing minimum wage in New York State. The domestic worker in question has found justice at last, as Khobragade was forced to explain her actions in court.

Yet many of South Africa’s domestic workers are not so lucky. Surveys and NGO reports suggest that the exploitation of domestic workers is rife in South Africa, and that the burgeoning black middle class have not, as some hoped, established a new paradigm in the treatment of domestic staff. Privileged South Africans of all races continue to exploit the usually unskilled and sometimes functionally illiterate women who dust the nation’s TV display cabinets and vacuum its rugs.

South Africa’s estimated 1 million domestic workers perform crucial work, freeing highly educated parents (usually women) to perform paid work outside the home, secure in the knowledge that the large home and garden many South Africans take as their due will be rigorously maintained for under R200/day.

Yet their rights are more noticed in the breach than in the observance, according to the South African Domestic Services & Allied Workers’ Union (SADSAWU), Cosatu, the Black Sash, the University of the Western Cape Social Law Project and the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu). In a joint presentation to Government, these organisations jointly stated that abuse of domestic workers was still rife in South Africa, with a very low prevalence of proper employment contracts and, according to the UDF, a growing problem of human trafficking from the Eastern Cape and Karoo to Cape Town. If, as countless statesmen have observed, the measure of a country is how it treats its most vulnerable citizens, the Khobragades and Dlaminis of this world are all of our problem.

Photo: ‘They Don’t Make Them Like They Used To’ by Mary Sibande (2008).

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