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South Africa: South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU)

South Africa: South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU)

by IDWFED published Sep 22, 2014 11:01 AM
South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU)
Street Address 41 Salt River Road, Salt River, Cape Town, South Africa
Phone Number +27 21 448 0044
Fax Number +27 21 448 0047
Email [email protected]
Type Trade Union
Number of Male Members
Number of Female Members
Members Pay Fees
Maintains Register of Fees Paid
Year Established 2000


The South African Domestic Services and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU) was launched in the light of the reality that the existing labour laws, introduced by the new democratic government of the South Africa, were not extended to domestic workers. SADSAWU therefore felt the need to create a strong and viable union for this sector, one of the most exploited, to ensure that not only were the rights and demands of domestic workers met but also to guarantee these vulnerable men and women a voice in the drafting of future labour legislation which will include this sector.


As early as 1948, with the reinforcement of the Apartheid state, domestic workers, both those working inside a dwelling as well as those working outside, for example gardeners, were exploited and the social engineering system of Apartheid ensured that people were forced into this exploitative market. During this time, the Master and Servants Act proved to provide more protection for the advantaged party (the “master”) than the exploited worker (“servant”). The (domestic) worker had no voice, no rights and no recourse and therefore this made them utterly vulnerable to the whims and desires of the master. It was legal slavery.

Yet it was only from about 1977 that the domestic worker sector started to show signs of becoming organized. These women laid the foundations for domestic workers to take up the challenge of trying to improve their lives and working conditions. In 1984, the first domestic union was formed and this union started working on the improvement of the living and working conditions of its workers. Sadly, in 1998, this organization the South African Domestic Workers Union (SADWU) had to fold because of financial constraints. It must be noted, given that domestic workers are some of the least paid workers in the country that the union struggled to remain strong. There was no doubt that external (financial) intervention was needed in order to keep this voice of vulnerable workers audible.

Fortunately, domestic workers were resolute in their determination to have a voice and as a result a group of workers decided to form a new union. In 2000, the SADSAWU was launched in the heart of KwaZulu-Natal and thus a new flame was once again lit in the fight to mobilize, educate and ensure that the new labour laws of the new South Africa were extended to include these workers, some of them the most ill-used in the modern economy. 

However, even today in free and democratic South Africa, with its liberal and world renowned Constitution, domestic workers have found it difficult to propagate their cause. This was due to the fact that even, for example, those who entered big business as well as the new government became employers of domestic workers and it was easy for them to forget and silence these workers who kept their families together while these new leaders of business and government ran the country and/or economy.

Today, after many campaigns, demonstrations and petitions domestic workers are now covered and can fully enjoy the benefits of the labour laws. Yet the struggle continues. There remains a long road ahead in ensuring that domestic workers are educated in their rights and enjoy these rights. Simultaneously, workers must be given the freedom to inform their employer of their desire to join the union as well as to guarantee the universal recognition of domestic work as a valuable workforce in the modern economy.    


History of South African Domestic Worker Labour Activism 

1955:  The Congress of South African Trade Unions is established. (COSATU)

1956: Women protest Pass Laws, specifically for Domestic Workers

1960: The government bans political organisations.

1964: Black women are forced to carry passes.  

1973: Trade union strikes begin as a powerful venue for political resistance and organising.

1976: The Soweto student uprising marks a critical moment of state violence against youth.  

1980: Domestic workers begin organizing around education and improved working conditions in Cape Town.

1983: The United Democratic Front (UDF) is formed to oppose state practices of separate government while violence escalate   
           throughout South Africa.

1985: A State of Emergency is declared after anti-apartheid demonstrators in Cape Town (Langa) are killed.

1986: SADWU, the South Africa Domestic Workers Union is formed and begins more progressive efforts to unionize domestic 
           workers and organise against apartheid.

1990: The Land Acts, Group Areas Act, and Population Registration Act of 1950 are repealed.  Convention for the Democratic South      
           Africa begins.  The first conference on Women and Gender in Southern Africa is held. 

1992: The Women's National Coalition is launched to mandate gender representation in the upcoming process of democratic 

1993: An interim democratic constitution is adopted.  The Basic Conditions of Employment Act is passed, which protects domestic 
           workers in formal labour legislation.  

1994: April, 16th.  The first national democratic elections are held after 46 years of apartheid rule.  Nelson Mandela of the ANC is 
           elected President by a vast majority of the population.  

1996: The new Constitution is adopted with a comprehensive Bill of Rights and an ANC-led reconstruction and Development 
           Programme.  The Labour Relations Act is passed to legalize the unionisation of domestic workers.  SADWU disbands as a   
           result of substantial organisational challenges.  

1997: The Basic Conditions of Employment Act is revised to include domestic workers for the first time in history.  The same year, 
           the Growth Employment and Redistribution Strategy replaces the RDP.  Overall job losses total half a million by 1999.

1999: The second democratic elections take place.  Thabo Mbeki is elected President.

2000: SADSAWU, the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union is formed.  

2001: Domestic workers are included in Unemployment Insurance for the first time.  

2002: Sectoral Determination No. 7 is passed, extending labour protections for domestic workers.  

2006: SADSAWU participates with other domestic worker unions and allies in an international conference in Amsterdam, 
           Netherlands to begin lobbying efforts to obtain an international resolution that would protect the labour rights of domestic 
           workers worldwide.  The group adopts the slogan, "Domestic Work is Decent Work."  

2010: Domestic worker labour rights are at the center of the agenda for the 99th Labor Conference of the International Labour 
           Organization, a subsidiary of the United Nations.  SADSAWU representatives are present and involved in negotiations.   

2011: Convention 189 is adopted by those present at the 1ooth Labour Conference of the International Labour Organization, 
          establishing the first set of global standard designed to extend labour protections for domestic workers.  

Information for this timeline was adapted in large part from Domestic Democracy: At Home in South Africa, by Jennifer N. Fish and the South African Department of Labour website.  Images courtesy of Jennifer N. Fish.  

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