A visa-free solution?
2016-12-15 13:50:19 -
Mariaam Bhatti: Tales of a Domestic Worker

I often follow South African news and recently read an article that the country raised the minimum wage for domestic workers by almost one rand an hour with effect from 1 December.

South Africa is one of the few countries in Africa that has laws and rules in place for domestic workers across the African continent, and one of the only two that have ratified the International Labour Organisation Convention C189, which strengthens national laws and gives better rights to domestic workers globally. Whether these laws get fully implemented or not, or how that is done, is a different discussion.

Although these laws and rules are meant to cover all domestic workers, I wonder what it means for migrant domestic workers there who tend to be undocumented because of lack of work permits for low paid work, just like in Ireland.

I started thinking about the new visa-free African Union passport that was launched this past July, and what possibilities it might bring to migrant workers currently terrorised by police on the streets, while others face exploitation and threats due to their immigration status. Could this be a new dawn for them? Of course many questions remain, in particular what stance that relative economic giants like South Africa will take.

If well implemented, it could address a lot of issues for the undocumented. The passport has been issued already to heads of state and diplomats, and it is said it will be rolled out to the rest of us ordinary men and women “by 2020”. It hasn’t been said how much it will cost and other barriers have already been identified, such as the fact that many natives of African countries are undocumented in their own homelands.

When I chatted to one migrant domestic worker I know who is undocumented in South Africa, she said the idea of the new passport sounded good, but three years is a long time to wait, and too late for her daughter to write her matric exams (the South African equivalent of the Leaving Certificate). This brought so much sadness to me, because it is an issue that affects many young people globally. Their future just gets taken away from them because of decisions their parents took, to seek a better life for them. How is that wrong for any parent? So many migrants I know have migrated to make theirs and families’ lives better.

Of course ideally people should do things by the book, but it is important to also understand that many countries make this purposefully difficult for people without the right social connections or extraordinary financial means. In such situations, people work with what they have, which in many cases means existing outside parameters of administrative laws. 

It is therefore very important for us all to educate ourselves about why people migrate, how and why people become undocumented, and the everyday struggles this brings to them. Most importantly, let us celebrate the enrichment and diversity that migration brings in all aspects of our lives.

Mariaam Bhatti is a member of the Domestic Workers Action Group and Force Labour Action Group of the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland.

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