Domestic workers suffer abuse, sexual harassment by employers: study

A study has revealed that domestic workers suffer abuse and sexual harassment at the hands of their employers.
A study has revealed that domestic workers suffer abuse and sexual harassment at the hands of their employers.
Image: 123RF/dolgachov

A hotline to report abuse and an improved inspectorate by the labour department focused on domestic workers has been mooted, after a study alleging that domestic workers had experienced sexual harassment at the hands of their employers, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic.

The study commissioned by Izwi Domestic Workers Alliance and Hlanganisa Institute of Development in Southern Africa, was conducted in July and August with domestic workers from Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape.

“Hlanganisa works with high-impact community organisations reaching marginalised members of society,” said the organisation’s executive director Bongiwe Ndondo.

According to the report, domestic workers did not frequently report abuse because despite legal protections, every avenue of recourse seemed to threaten their livelihoods.

“As in other areas of South African society, the situation has worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic. During this period, many domestic workers have been locked down at their workplaces, unable to leave the house. This constant contact and lack of privacy has increased the potential for employers to take advantage of them,” the report read.

Domestic workers, the study noted, were often foreign migrants, frequently undocumented and working largely in isolation in the homes of employers.

In the research, four participants mentioned cases of rape or sexual assault.

“In other cases, domestic workers were shown pornography, forced to touch employers and assaulted sexually,” says the report.

The research found that gender-based violence experienced in the domestic work sector also included male employers doing the following:

  • walking around the house without clothes;
  • exposing their private parts to domestic workers;
  • walking into the rooms of domestic workers during their private time at all hours, and;
  • engineering opportunities for domestic workers to bring them something while employers are bathing or taking a shower.

According to the study, employers asked domestic workers to have sex with them for extra pay.

No matter what avenue she reports through, she will almost inevitably lose her job. Her only choice becomes silence.
Maggie Mthombeni

Domestic workers were also forced to perform oral sex on their employers.

They risked being fired when they refused their employers’ sexual advances.

One of the domestic workers interviewed told a story of how her employer’s teenage son instructed her to stop wearing underwear when she cleaned the house.

“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,” the report reads.

Domestic workers interviewed reported that employers saw them as vulnerable because they were poor and believed they could be manipulated.

“Some reported employers being aware that workers desperately needed their incomes. Many reported feeling powerless in the face of abuse.

“Most survey respondents did not believe that the South African government had the capacity to deal with GBV in the domestic work sector.”

Hlanganisa and Izwi have recommended that the department of labour improve the monitoring of national policies geared at improving the working and living conditions of domestic workers.

This included the expansion of the department of labour inspectorate for the benefit of domestic workers and other vulnerable sectors.

The organisations also recommended that the government establish call centres that can assist domestic workers as a vulnerable employment sector in dealing with GBV in the workplace.

“In our experience, survivors of gender-based violence in the domestic workplace are very rarely able to report the abuse,” said Maggie Mthombeni, case manager of Izwi Domestic Workers Alliance.

“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.”

*Not her real name.