Domestic workers’ rights

Domestic worker

Compensation for work-related injuries

There are 869,000 domestic workers in South Africa, comprising 5.2% of the population, as at the end of March, 2024. Many of us rely on domestic workers to relieve us of the burden of cleaning our own homes, looking after our children, and perhaps cooking our meals. For many workers, women in particular, as it is a predominantly female workforce, it is the default employment option if their education was disrupted by family obligations or other challenges. Women from rural areas where unemployment is particularly high often make their way to the metros in search of work, sending remittances back to children left behind to be looked after by a grandmother or aunt. Anyone fortunate enough to afford help in the home has a responsibility – arguably a moral duty – to pay a living wage. According to, this is estimated to be R6806 per month, or around R320 a day. Unfortunately, not all domestic workers have steady work five days a week, so a more generous daily rate will undoubtedly be welcome. What happens if your domestic worker slips off a ladder while cleaning your windows, or burns herself on a hot oven? Can she claim compensation from the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act 130 of 1993 (COIDA)? The short answer used to be no. Fortunately, a recent Constitutional Court decision has rectified this inequity.

 A history of exclusion

COIDA provides compensation to employees who suffer occupational injuries or diseases. However, Section 1  historically specifically excluded domestic workers, thereby denying them and their dependants access to compensatory benefits should they suffer injury or illness at work. If domestic workers had been included in the definition of “employee” under Section 1 then they would have been entitled to the full protection of COIDA, and been eligible for compensation on a no-fault basis for injuries sustained and certain diseases contracted in the course of their employment. “No-fault” means they are not required to prove the employer was negligent. Fault is only considered when an employee can prove the employer’s negligence was the cause of the injury. In that case the employee may claim increased compensation.

COIDA and its associated system of compensation is designed to prevent employees suing their employers for work-related injuries. Instead they have recourse to a general fund for compensation (similar to the Road Accident Fund). COIDA’s funds are generated by contributions made by employers at least annually. Employees are not required to contribute. Benefits payable under COIDA include temporary and permanent disability benefits, medical benefits, and benefits to the dependants of the employee (where the employee died on duty).

Domestic workers are among the most economically vulnerable groups in South Africa, so denial of access to compensation for occupational injuries perpetuated socio-economic inequalities. Unable to work and often not paid any sick leave by employers who view them as casual workers, a domestic worker and her family could rapidly fall into extreme poverty. This discrimination also failed to acknowledge the significant contribution of domestic workers to the economy and society. In fairness, many employers do support their domestic workers through difficult times, but without the legal right to compensation, a domestic worker’s situation was always precarious. Yet the reasons for this exclusion from the definition in COIDA for so long is a mystery. There was no legal or rational basis for it.

The exclusion of domestic workers challenged

The South African Constitution enshrines the right to equality and non-discrimination in Section 9. Excluding domestic workers from COIDA benefits was discriminatory, as it denied a predominantly female workforce the same protections afforded to other employees. Furthermore, through this exclusion clause, South Africa failed to align its domestic laws with international commitments, including the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO’s) Domestic Workers’ Convention, 2011, undermining our adherence to global labour standards.

In a relatively recent Constitutional Court decision, the exclusion of domestic workers from the definition of employee under Section 1 of COIDA was found to be unconstitutional. 

Mahlangu and the SADSAWU take on Minister of Labour

The daughter of Ms Mahlangu, a domestic worker who drowned in her employer’s swimming pool, sought compensation for her mother’s death. Ms. Mahlangu had been a domestic worker for 22 years and was partially blind and unable to swim. When her daughter approached the Department of Labour, she was denied compensation under COIDA, along with unemployment insurance benefits. The matter ended up in the Constitutional Court where the definition of employee under Section 1 of COIDA was challenged. The ConCourt expressed regret for this exclusion and the prejudice it had caused to domestic workers over the years. The definition was changed, and the order was made with retrospective effect from 27 April 1994 (the dawn of democracy in South Africa).

Domestic workers are now covered under the amended COIDA and can claim compensation for any injuries or diseases sustained while on duty from the Compensation Fund. However, although the Constitutional Court has tried to address this oversight by making it retrospective to 1994, some damage may have already been done, in the form of suffering and hardship by families denied compensation.

For more information

If you employ a domestic worker for more than 24 hours per month, you must register them with the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) through the Department of Labour website. It is a misconception that this is only required for full-time workers. If a domestic worker is at your home one day a week, they are very likely to reach the 24-hour monthly threshold. If you have any questions about labour law and want to be sure you comply with all relevant legislation, contact Simon on 086 099 5146 or email for a confidential discussion.


If you are a domestic worker and think your rights are not being upheld, contact Simon on 086 099 5146. Simon will review your case and, if you qualify for assistance, will support you. Or contact:

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The information on this website is provided to assist the reader with a general understanding of the law. While we believe the information to be factually accurate, and have taken care in our preparation of these pages, these articles cannot and do not take individual circumstances into account and are not a substitute for personal legal advice. If you have a legal matter that concerns you, please consult a qualified attorney. Simon Dippenaar & Associates takes no responsibility for any action you may take as a result of reading the information contained herein (or the consequences thereof), in the absence of professional legal advice.

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