'I took on my abusive boss and won'

Gloria Kente is the first black domestic worker to take her employer to court
Image caption Gloria Kente is the first black domestic worker to take her employer to court

Gloria Kente had been working for the family for three years when her employer's boyfriend began hurling racial abuse at her.

Although her life was far from perfect, until that point she made ends meet with the little wage she received and the love she had for her employer's kids.

Ms Kente was then working as a domestic worker in a gated community complex in a part of Cape Town where the average property goes for 1.5m rand ($108,000; £85,000) - more than 70 times the annual wage of someone living in Khayelitsha, the township she called home.

Not that she was in Khayelitsha much. It took more than two hours to reach work each day, forcing her to leave her children and grandchildren behind from Monday to Friday each week while she lived with her employer.

For more than one million domestic workers in South Africa, this routine is not uncommon and, in fact, is often an expectation.

Fighting back

But the separation made it all the harder when the abuse started. At first, it was verbal insults: "fat, lazy" and the "k word" - an offensive and illegal derogatory term used to denigrate black people, rarely spoken out loud in South Africa.

Image caption Abuse against domestic workers is widespread

It can be argued that the country's domestic workers form the backbone of the country, keeping the home going and looking after the children.

Kyla Mills is one of thousands of South Africans whose domestic worker literally felt like part of the family - so much so that she considers the woman she knew as "Ma Lina" to be a second mother.

"Ma Lina fed me, bathed me and tucked me into bed many times," she says.

And yet abuse - and low pay - remains rife across the nation.

The issues recently hit the headlines again after an MP for the ruling ANC, Mduduzi Manana, was accused of pushing his 53-year-old domestic worker down the stairs. The charge has since been dropped, but it hasn't stopped the opposition and even his own party's youth wing calling for his resignation.

But there have been barely any cases brought to court since Ms Kente's fight four years ago - possibly because they know speaking out comes at a cost.

After Ms Kente won her case, she couldn't find work.

"People feared I would report them," she says.

The numbers behind South Africa's 'second mothers'

  • More than one million domestic workers in South Africa
  • About 70,000 are believed to be migrant workers
  • Internationally, only 10% of domestic workers enjoy same legal protections as other workers
  • 80% of domestic workers are single women
  • Minimum monthly pay in South Africa: $182.50 - $250 for other workers

Sources: SADSAWU; International Labour Organization; South African government

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Luckily, that was when the South African Domestic Services and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU) stepped in, offering her a job.

And that was when she truly got to see the scale of abuse suffered by women working in domestic service in South Africa.

Each month, she sees around 100 women who have plucked up the courage to take this first step. The abuse takes many forms, but Eunice Dhladhla, another union employee, says that those who have been raped are often unable to vocalise it at first: they just start crying uncontrollably when you ask them what the employer did to them.

Image copyright Eunice Dhladhla
Image caption Eunice Dhladhla, pictured at her employer's home in 1977, was a domestic worker for decades

Taking the second step is equally difficult. The women find it a struggle to get the police to take them seriously, the union says. Those that make it as far as court regularly find their cases thrown out, because the worker either doesn't understand or know their rights.

So Ms Kente's case remains extremely rare, a privilege she recognizes,

"Many women don't have the support I had, my lawyer worked tirelessly for me," she acknowledges.

It means suffering in silence or leaving without pay is often the only solution.

Of course, the pay is not good either.

The recent introduction of a national minimum wage of $250 per month for South Africans actually excludes domestic workers. According to the proposals, their minimum wage will be just $182.50, depending on the region.

Many say it is simply not enough, especially as many domestic workers are single women trying to support their families alone.

"Many women have taken to sex work because their wages are not enough to support their families," SADSAWU says.


But why accept such a low wage? Ms Mills has one explanation: she has watched desperate foreign workers offering to do a day's work for less than $1.50.

"People will pay that because they can," Ms Mills says.

Image copyright Kyla Mills
Image caption Kyla Mills (right) says the domestic worker she grew up with, Ma Lina (left), was like a second mother

It was hearing the stories of how other domestic workers are treated which inspired Ms Mills to speak out in a viral Facebook post.

"It must be heartbreaking to arrive at a nice suburban house and get on your knees to be able to put food on your table," she wrote. "It must be even more heartbreaking to be told: 'There are so many people who would work for less, you know,' when what you know is that your wages barely cover your expenses if at all.

"Most of all, how heartbreaking it must be to kiss another person's children goodnight when your own kids are going to bed without you there."

Ms Kente knows just how heartbreaking it can be. Her children ended up having to see a psychologist, because, she says, they "blamed themselves" for their mother's abuse.

But it makes her all the more determined to keep fighting for all the domestic workers across the country.

"We are not maids, servants or aunties; we are domestic workers, worthy like any other worker," she says. "We want the government to recognize that the domestic work is decent work.

"We make their lives easy; we give South Africans the confidence to do their jobs."

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