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Research on human rights violations against live-in domestic workers, and related Code of Good Practice

Repositorio de Prácticas

Research on human rights violations against live-in domestic workers, and related Code of Good Practice

Primary GCM Objectives

Principios Rectores del Pacto Mundial para la Migración*

*All practices are to uphold the ten guiding principles of the GCM. This practice particularly exemplifies these listed principles.

Objetivos de Desarrollo Sostenible (ODS)


2021 - Presente

Tipo de práctica

Research Study

Geographic Scope



An estimated 200,000 migrant domestic workers, predominantly from the SADC region (especially Zimbabwe) live in South Africa. Many of these are “live-in” workers, residing on their employer’s property. For these workers, the conflation of the home and the workplace, as well as the intimate personal nature of the job, inevitably leads to the entanglement of workplace rights and personal freedoms. Live-in domestic workers are fighting not only to access their rights under the labour law, but also to secure basic human rights to dignity, family and freedom – rights which would not be impacted by employment in most other industries. Many of these rights are secured in general terms under the Constitution, but without sufficient guidance, and without detailed implementation under the labour laws.

This research explored the types of violations of civil liberties and human rights faced by live-in domestic workers. 94% of respondents were migrant workers. Research areas included:

  • Adequate standard of housing
  • Privacy
  • Family life
  • Food provision
  • Freedom of movement and association
  • Freedom from violence and harassment

Additionally, the report looks at two particular contexts: that of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the situation of workers residing in staff accommodation of residential communities, where they face additional types of discrimination and exclusion.

Each area of research is framed by the international and local legal context, highlighting global best practices as well as gaps in policy and enforcement. Findings from this research were developed into a “Code of Good Practice for Accommodating Live-in Domestic Workers”, including one version for private homes and another for residential communities. These Codes provide user-friendly guidelines on the standards and practices needed to ensure workers’ human rights are not violated. They also provide a basis for advocating for policy change, such amendments to the labour law and to laws governing community schemes.


Principales organizaciones implementadoras

Izwi Domestic Workers Alliance

Des informations détaillées

Izwi Domestic Workes Alliance

Organizaciones asociadas/donantes

Solidarity Center

Beneficio e impacto

As a result of the initial research, we were able to identify the gaps in legal protection, which are now driving advocacy efforts.

1) The following rights are clearly specified in South African law but require greater enforcement:
To move freely,
To get pregnant without being dismissed,
To privacy of person and property,
To dignity and equality,
To freedom from violence and abuse.

2) The following rights are not sufficiently specified under the law and require further policy advocacy to ensure protection from abuse:
To adequate, decent housing,
To family life (including both cohabitation with family, and right to visitors),
To equality, movement, and family life within the context of residential communities,
To equality, movement, and family life within the Covid-19 pandemic.

The purpose of the resulting Code of Good Practice is to:
• Provide a minimum standard to which employers can be held accountable in ensuring that live-in domestic workers have access to their basic human rights.
• Provide a baseline for domestic workers when negotiating employment and accommodation arrangements.
• Define key areas for amending related regulation and legislation, in relation to both the labour law and housing law.
• Define key areas for broader advocacy and rights awareness.

We are working with human rights and community scheme lawyers to advocate for legal change by 1) amending the labour law to address human rights provisions, and 2) amending the regulation of Community Schemes to include protections for those living in staff quarters. We are also distributing and advocating for use of the related Code of Good Practice, with the understanding that some employers and community schemes will comply, if the requirements are made clear and justified by legal provisions.

In an initial case, we have managed to secure the right of a group of domestic workers (some of whom are migrants) to have a family member reside with them in the staff quarters of the apartment building where they work. This right has been denied to them by building regulations for decades.

Lecciones clave

From a research perspective, we found it effective to train and engage domestic workers themselves as field researchers, as they are easily able to find targeted respondents in their communities. This approach was very successful in both reach, and in allowing respondents to comfortably share their experiences on issues that can be sensitive or private, in the languages they prefer. This is especially important for migrant workers, who are often more hesitant to speak out about workplace violations.

Determining the exact provisions of the Code of Good Conduct requires discussion and engagement to find a balance between protecting workers rights and recognizing the rights of employers and workplace context. Draft provisions should be vetted and recommendations made by a variety of stakeholders. In our case, this was developed with input from domestic workers, union representatives, human rights lawyers, community scheme lawyers, labour consultants, placement agencies, and domestic employers.

Under each section of the Code of Good Practice, we included a section on “Employee responsibilities”. Although this was not the focus of the tool, it addresses concerns of employers and recognizes that both parties must contribute to any healthy employment relationship.

Recomendaciones(para replicar)

The basic rights violations reported are not specific to South Africa, but are widespread in the Southern Africa region and globally. The research report provides a systematic way of examining these violations that can be applied in other contexts. Furthermore, for each area, the report provides international standards (including UN & ILO conventions as well as country-level best practices) which can serve as the foundation for advocacy and policy recommendations.

The Code of Good Practice can be easily adapted to the legal and practical context of various countries, and can be used as a checklist for employers, community schemes and lawmakers. Some of the recommendations are noted above, under "Lessons learnt".


Generally, studies of the working conditions of migrant and domestic workers address standard areas of decent work, such as working hours, wages, and social protections, While it is known that workers are experiencing human rights violations, there is a lack of published studies on these issues, especially in the Africa region. This study combined both qualitative research (to understand the experiences of workers), and legal research (to provide guidelines on the legal gaps and international best practices in policy and law).

Discrimination against live-in workers in the staff quarters of residential communities is widespread and also in direct violation of South Africa’s constitution. However, it goes widely unchallenged and unreported, except in singular cases which do not usually have a wider impact. Providing focused qualitative research as well as practical guidelines for community schemes to follow is an important first step in creating a new set of standards for how these communities regulate live-in staff.

Finally, much of the advocacy work in the domestic sector engages with workers and with government, but not directly with employers. This is partially for practical purposes, including a lack of employers organisations to engage. However, educating domestic employers on their responsibilities and providing user-friendly tools for compliance (such as this Code of Good Practice) is a critical component of improving working conditions in the sector.

Fecha Enviado:

11 May 2024

*Todas las referencias a Kosovo deben entenderse en el contexto de la Resolución 1244 [1999] del Consejo de Seguridad de las Naciones Unidas.