A Feminist Future of Work: Three African Feminist Leaders Revolutionizing Domestic Work
By Nancy Moloantoa
Three years into a global pandemic, domestic workers continue to provide some of the most basic and essential services. But they rarely have access to basic rights and protections—and COVID-19 has further highlighted both the vital role care workers play in supporting households, as well as the deeply precarious position the majority of domestic workers are in.
These realities ring especially true for domestic workers across Africa, where millions continue to work under sometimes appalling conditions for very little pay. According to the International Labor Organization, 8 out of 10 domestic workers lack effective labor and social protections because of their informal status, and they often don’t enjoy basic benefits—both in law and in practice—including formal contracts, health insurance, pensions, sick pay, and holiday leave.
These challenges have been exacerbated by the systemic neglect in providing social services for the most vulnerable, as well as the racist, sexist, and classist-driven system, which has made domestic work one of the most gendered forms of employment. Indeed, women make up the nearly 70 percent of domestic workers on the continent. Women may be resigned to domestic work for a variety of reasons. They are typically seen as the caretakers of the home, responsible for stereotypical tasks such as cleaning, cooking, and taking care of children. Domestic work may be attractive to many low-income women because the majority have had little access to a formal education. And since they often come from low-income backgrounds, domestic work provides both income and sometimes shelter—particularly for migrant workers who are also either undocumented or come from rural areas and may live with their employers.
More than half of these workers are in upper-middle-income countries, underscoring the realities that most domestic workers in rich countries are from Black and brown communities from the Global South.
All of this has amplified calls for change for domestic workers across Africa. In South Africa, for example, advocates have helped secure such tangible benefits for domestic workers as paid sick days. And unions and domestic associations are forming across the region—from Morocco to Angola—which are helping increase protections.
I spoke with three African feminist leaders from South Africa, Sierra Leone, and Zimbabwe who seek to change the way domestic and care workers are treated and push for new policies and laws to protect them.
Chelcy Heroe, chief executive officer and founder, Informal Workers Organisation, Sierra Leone
“I was raised by my mother, who was a domestic worker and experienced abuses without any repercussions or accountability from her abusers. I became deeply concerned about the conditions most domestic workers operate in—including the gender-based violence, trafficking, cruelty, and abuses they are often subjected to, such as underpayment, and working long hours—as well as the extreme lack of services and social protections. God’s direction and what I witnessed with my mom’s experience led me to be deeply connected to these issues, and I decided to dedicate my career to supporting these informal workers. In Sierra Leone, there are no specific protections for care workers and the informal sector in general is connected to a myriad of abuses.
The numbers are stark: according to a needs assessment by our organization in the country, 85 percent of domestic workers did not know what rights they were entitled to by the law, 70 percent of domestic workers were not paid the government-prescribed minimum wage, and 95 percent of domestic workers don’t sign employment contracts with their employers. Domestic workers deserve the same rights and protections as those in other sectors, which is why I’m working to strengthen the capacity of domestic workers to be able to deliver efficient and quality services, while at same time acquiring the knowledge, skills, and ability to negotiate improved wages and working conditions.”
The Informal Workers Organisation (iWO) is a regional labor and human rights organization, which seeks to promote and protect the rights, dignity, and welfare of informal workers in West Africa through public education, research, advocacy, lobbying, capacity building, case management, and litigation.
Nancy Kachingwe, gender and public policy advisor and co-founder, South Feminist Futures, Zimbabwe
“The vast majority of paid care workers—of which domestic workers are a significant number—work in conditions of hyper-exploitation with few or no social or even legal protections. We know that countries in the Global North depend on migrant workers to cover much of the household care work, as they do in the health and education sectors. So care work, which the COVID pandemic showed us to be essential, remains one in which there are the least labor protections, and this is largely because this work is feminized and racialized. South Feminist Futures frames its work across countries in the Global South and people from the South in the North.
For us, care work includes the underpaid and unpaid labor done by women in the Global South, and work done by Black, Indigenous, and people of color including documented and undocumented immigrants in the Global North—whether in their homes, homes of others, as well as in institutions such as hospitals, schools, and sanitation work. Under global neoliberal capitalism, the conditions of paid work are precarious, with minimal labor standards and social security. This labor is in fact work that must be ‘recognized, reduced, redistributed, and rewarded.’ And in Africa and the Global South, the intersections of race, class, gender, and ethnic exploitation and oppression are further concentrated. We must look to the root causes of this crisis, which preceded the COVID pandemic, in the context of the racist, neocolonial, and patriarchal global economic order.”
South Feminist Futures is working to address the questions of “care work” from a Global South political-economic perspective.
Lebohang Liepollo Pheko, senior research fellow, Trade Collective, South Africa
“The state routinely treats unpaid domestic work as a free gift to the market economy. This devalues the skills, time, and energy required to maintain societies, and presumes that payment to these workers is optional or minimal. In addition to domestic workers, nurses, social workers, teachers, and health workers are primarily women and their working conditions are often under-resourced, with minimal protections, and lack social, professional, and financial recognition.
I’ve always been concerned with the mischaracterization of naming this ‘care work,’ particularly because the work women are often consigned to is a result of patriarchal and gendered constructs. It is also deeply racialized, evident by the low pay and value assigned to Black and brown women’s significant care contribution globally. It is not acceptable to collectively treat women as the unpaid labor of last resort. Naming is crucial to building policy advocacy, and blanketly calling the diverse and often complex work that takes place both in and outside the domestic space does a great disservice to how hard these jobs are. The term also oversimplifies the complex work of maintaining society and the contribution this labor makes to the market economy. It also ignores the necessary intersectional power and structural analysis necessary to redefine the idea of social reproduction, redistribution, and dismantling of racialized capitalism in a post-COVID world.”
Trade Collective is a feminist and advocacy think tank.
Nancy Moloantoa is the portfolio lead for socioeconomic rights at the Open Society Foundation for South Africa.