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Landmark ruling for domestic workers

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The landmark judgment was set in motion after Maria Mhlangu, who was employed as a domestic worker in a private home for 22 years, drowned in her employer’s pool on March 31, 2012.

Picture: Matthews Baloyi / African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Cape Town – In a final victory for domestic workers across South Africa, the Constitutional Court has confirmed an order declaring their exclusion from the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases (Coida) as unconstitutional.

The landmark judgment was set in motion after Maria Mhlangu, who was employed as a domestic worker in a private home for 22 years, drowned in her employer’s pool on March 31, 2012.

Her daughter and sole dependant approached the Department of Labour about compensation for her mother’s death. She was informed that she could neither get compensation under Coida, nor could she get unemployment insurance benefits for her loss.

Mhlangu, along with the SA Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (Sadsawu), then approached the courts to have section 1(xix)(v) of Coida declared unconstitutional to the extent that it excludes domestic workers employed in private households from the definition of “employee”.

“This is a great victory for domestic workers. Our struggle started the day when we became a democratic country,” said Sadsawu general secretary Myrtle Witbooi. “We won this for workers who lost their lives at the workplace and for the children who did not benefit, but were left without the support of their mother. There is still a long road ahead but for now we are included. Maria Mhlangu’s family will benefit soon.”

Justice Nonkosi Mhlantla said the impact of the judgment “must go beyond a symbolic victory for domestic workers, and should also, practically speaking, cement their rights and place in our society”.

“These black women are not ‘invisible’ or ‘powerless’. On the contrary, they have a voice, and we are listening,” Justice Mhlantla said.

Pinky Mashiane, president of the United Domestic Workers of South Africa, was an organiser for Sadsawu when she saw “a small article in the Pretoria newspaper about a domestic worker who had drowned and thought something about this is not right”.

“I went to look for the employers and the family. I then arranged a meeting with the family in a local park in August 2012 to hear what happened. We then went to see the employers and I asked them to teach their domestic worker to swim so that history won’t repeat itself because they had a new employee there,” Mashiane said.

“I went to several institutions for legal assistance and was turned down but I refused to give up. Then a lawyer at Wits wrote to a lawyer in America from the Solidarity Center in New York and they sponsored the case. It was not an easy road. It took us eight years to get here, but I refused to give up hope.”

Mashiane said now was the time for domestic workers to be united and organised. She called on domestic workers with labour related issues to contact her directly so she could help them. She can be reached on 079 599 3117.

Cape Times