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Migrant Domestic workers and research supporting campaign and litigation for inclusion in the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act

Repositorio de Prácticas

Migrant Domestic workers and research supporting campaign and litigation for inclusion in the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act

Primary GCM Objectives

Secondary 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)


2018 - 2021

Tipo de práctica

Research Study

Geographic Scope



In South Africa, about a million people, mainly black women, work as domestic workers, facing various adversities rooted in apartheid and poverty. Migrant domestic workers generally do not mobilise for rights, citing lack of documentation, discrimination, and language barriers as key obstacles to claiming rights. Furthermore, migrant workers have minimal interaction with state institutions, NGOs and migrant-led organisations, minimal trust and reliance on institutions and organisations. Thus, civil society plays a crucial role in advocating for migrant domestic workers' rights, including trade unions, NGOs, migrant-rights organisations, and public interest litigation organisations.

The express exclusion of domestic workers from claiming workers compensation under South African Compensation for Occupational Injury and Illness Act (COIDA) prompted domestic workers, including migrants, to mobilise for legal inclusion through the COIDA Campaign. The COIDA campaign exemplifies how strategic research, legal advocacy, and grassroots organising are critical components to address systemic discrimination and bring about meaningful change.

Part of this campaign for legal inclusion included a 2018 empirical study on the exclusion of domestic workers from COIDA. This research involved in depth interviews with domestic workers, the majority of whom were migrant workers, in order to better understand the types of injury and illness occurring in the context of working in a private home, within particular power and racial dynamics of post-Apartheid. The research paper, “When the Job Hurts” was reported in national media and succeeded in providing awareness of the challenges faced by domestic workers in South Africa. On November 19, 2020, the Constitutional Court of South Africa declared COIDA unconstitutional in the case of Mahlangu v Minister of Compensation, and ordered retrospective compensation for domestic workers. This was an important milestones in recognising and protecting the rights of all domestic workers.


Principales organizaciones implementadoras

Solidarity Center
South African Domestic & Allied Services Workers Union - SADSAWU
United Domestic Workers of South Africa - UDWOSA
African Diaspora Workers Network - ADWN
Izwi Domestic Workers Alliance
Black Womxn Caucus
Migrant Workers Union South Africa - MIWUSA

Beneficio e impacto

While the Constitutional Court judgment declaring COIDA unconstitutional, has been lauded as landmark, the role of the COIDA campaign, was critical. The COIDA campaign united local and migrant domestic workers, establishing a mutual platform for solidarity and advocacy. Through collective collaborative efforts, unions organising the sector, SADSAWU and UDWOSA, national union federations (COSATU & FEDUSA) including migrant-rights organisations (African Diaspora Workers Network (ADWN), Izwi Domestic, Migrant Workers Union South Africa (MIWUSA); feminist organisations, Black Women Caucus, (BWC) Casual Workers Advice Office including public litigation organisations (SERI), workers mobilised for recognition and coverage under COIDA and won the case at the Constitutional Court. This landmark victory signified the advancement of democratic rights, social justice, and equality for domestic workers in South Africa whose labour is often undervalued and underpaid.

Despite the difficulties migrants encounter in advocating for their rights due to factors such as lack of documentation, discrimination, and language barriers, migrant domestic workers played a central role in the campaign. This is because the exclusion of domestic workers, including migrants, from labour laws like COIDA disenfranchised all workers in the sector regardless of nationality from enjoyment of fundamental labour rights on the grounds of gender, class, and race. This case serves as a powerful example of how international migrants advocate for their rights in South Africa through collective action and national advocacy. By mobilising around the cause of including domestic workers under COIDA, local and migrant workers from countries such as Lesotho, Swaziland, Malawi, and Zimbabwe demonstrated solidarity and unity. This coalition was built upon the principles of feminist 'sisterhood' solidarity, grounded in a shared working-class perspective. Through their campaign, these workers not only fought for their rights but also established a lasting platform for collaboration that extended beyond the constitutional court victory. This enduring coalition signifies the strength and importance of collective action in advancing the rights and protections of marginalised groups, showcasing the potential for meaningful change through solidarity and collaboration.

Lecciones clave

The involvement of migrant domestic workers in broader societal issues remains limited, posing challenges for collective action. Successful mobilisation requires strong partnerships between migrant workers and local civil society to ensure equal enjoyment of constitutional rights and address labour rights violations. Regularising the migration status of international domestic workers is essential for them to advocate effectively for their rights. Civil society remains a pivotal supporting pillar in advocating for the rights of migrant domestic workers, with key actors including trade unions, NGOs, migrant-rights organisations, public interest litigation organisation, and advice offices. In South Africa, solidarity among workers has been fostered through workshops conducted by entities like the International Labour Organisation (ILO), Rosa Luxemburg, Chris Hani Institute, ADWN, Solidarity Centre, Izwi Domestic Workers, DITSELA, including national union federations such COSATU and FEDUSA, enabling migrant workers to assert their agency against human rights violations. Despite progress, xenophobia remains a significant barrier, leading some migrants to adopt an 'invisible' stance to avoid reprisals and deportation.

Migrants cannot do it alone even if self-organising is involved. Successful mobilisation embroils strong partnerships with progressive local civil society and activists to find common ground for equal enjoyment of constitutional and labour rights. Furthermore, regularising the status of international domestic workers is vital to enable them to effectively advocate for their rights without fear of reprisals such as deportation.

Recomendaciones(para replicar)

The key ingredients for replication are the partnership between unions and migrant worker associations, with ngo's and public interest lawyers. The research, which consisted of depth interviews, coupled with focal groups, enabled by whatsapp, was key in bringing the different partners together. It placed domestic workers and their stories at the center of the litigation and campaign, and brought to the fore, not only the types of injury and illness that occur to domestic worker's in their places of employment, but also the wider context of power imbalance in which this work takes place. It was obvious from the research, the ways in which this imbalance was exacerbated in the context of migrant domestic work. The research then informed the litigation, and the coalition, led by the unions and migrant worker associations, ensured that domestic worker's presence was visible at each court hearing, and that they engaged with all forms of media, to bring home the message that exclusion from legal protection amounted to discrimination, that could not be justified.


The collaboration between local and migrant domestic workers was especially innovative, demonstrating the power of solidarity and collective action in advancing the interests of workers. Establishing a mutual platform for dialogue and capacity-building fosters not only a sense of unity but also empowers workers to advocate for their rights effectively. The COIDA victory not only ensured better protection for domestic workers but also highlighted the importance of intersectional approaches to worker organising to ensure equality and justice for all in society.

Fecha Enviado:

17 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.