Myrtle Witbooi never intended to become a domestic worker. She had planned on studying nursing, but when a family asked her to help caretake for their daughter, who was recently burned, she agreed. For the next 12 years, she lovingly looked after the growing child and her siblings and, unwittingly, became a full-time domestic worker. However, it wasn't until a local newspaper published an article disparaging domestic workers that Myrtle became an activist.
She penned a letter to the newspaper in response to the article and called for respect and change, not harmful words. The reporter was shocked to find a domestic worker had written the letter, says Myrtle, thinking that she couldn't have been literate or "intelligent enough." That's where it all started for her. Fifty years later, Myrtle, who is from South Africa, has been a leader in the movement to improve working conditions for women around the world who cook, clean, babysit, garden, and nurse in the homes of their employers.
Witbooi is part of a pioneering group that founded the International Domestic Workers’ Federation (IDWF), the first global union organization run by women. She says, "Where women take the lead, things happen." Although still in its early years--IDWF was founded in 2013--the women have made great strides at both the local and, importantly, international level.
In 2007, Witbooi joined a coordinated global effort of domestic worker organizations (IDWF had not yet formed) that set out to gain recognition by the International Labour Organization (ILO). Their hard work and determination paid off. In June 2011 in Geneva, the ILO adopted the Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers Convention 189 and accompanying Recommendation at the 100th International Labour Conference (ILC).
Watch Witbooi discuss the importance of C189 and how the Convention can have an impact on the lives of domestic workers.