Clapping and singing “women must be praised,” a traditional South African protest song from the years of apartheid oppression, eight domestic workers from South Africa gathered with their American sisters and brothers from the United Domestic Workers of America (UDW)/AFSCME in San Diego on one of their first full days in the United States.

Implicit in the song, which pays tribute to women for their effort in the struggle for democracy and justice, is the sense they did not sacrifice to end apartheid only to be treated without dignity in peoples’ homes.

“We are workers like any other workers, and without legal guidelines and industry standards, domestic workers are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse,” said Eunice Dhladhla, who has labored as a domestic worker from a young age. Like many of South Africa’s primarily female domestic workers who started their work lives in apartheid South Africa, Dhladhla took the job because black workers were prevented from attaining better-paying jobs.

Dhladhla and seven other members of the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU) were in San Diego as part of a recent Solidarity Center exchange program sponsored through a U.S State Department grant. The exchange, one of several organized each year by the Solidarity Center, also will bring U.S. domestic workers to South Africa, creating opportunities for workers to share best practices, experiences and ideas to better empower domestic workers. The 25,000-member SADSAWU is part of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the country’s largest labor federation.

While in San Diego—the group also traveled to Atlanta, Boston and Vermont on their 10-day trip—the San Diego County Board of Supervisors presented the UDW with a proclamation declaring November “Homecare Provider Month.” They also visited lawmakers’ offices—a first for the women, who do not have such opportunities in South Africa.

“Workers get a chance to speak for themselves (in the United States). This never happen to us,” said Pinky Mashiane, a SADSAWU organizer. “The South Africa legislators lay down their laws and legislation. … They never come to us and say, ‘As workers, as trade unionists, what do you want to see?’”

The domestic workers were less pleasantly surprised by the lack of maternity leave options and unemployment protections in the United States.

“We have more laws in South Africa that protect domestic workers,” Mashiane said. “We have maternity benefits. When you are pregnant you have four months leave. It starts at your last month of pregnancy. After your child is born, you stay on leave for three months and you are paid by the unemployment insurance fund. (We) have stronger laws against unfair dismissals.”

Also while in California, the women met with immigrant domestic workers at the Filipino Advocates for Justice and shared organizing strategies with the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), which represents 45 affiliate organizations in 18 states. In Boston, they took part in the AFSCME Council 93 convention, where they heard AFSCME President Lee Saunders.

The exchange was especially timely, with domestic workers organizing into unions and associations across the world, united by the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), which was recently founded to ensure dignity and respect for all domestic workers. SADSAWU General Secretary Myrtle Witbooi is IDWF president. In September, IDWF won the AFL-CIO George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award for supporting domestic worker movements and building bridges between unions and domestic workers internationally.

Building on what they learned during the exchange, members of the group said they plan to conduct more member education around organizing new members, will enlist community members in union building and include workers in leadership training. In short, said Mashiane:

“We need to grow our union using every tool that we have and everything that we’ve learned here. We also need to approach the government and demand that they listen to us. We want to talk to them. If they don’t listen then …. we’ll take what we wanted to tell them into the press so they can hear what we want.”

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