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Izwi Connect: Creative ways of organising & empowering domestic workers

Izwi's migrant domestic workers are using innovative technology to access their rights and build livelihood possibilities, together.

Photo of Kessete Tekie
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What problem does the idea help to solve and how does your solution work? (2,000 characters maximum)

The domestic workforce in South Africa is over one million strong. Yet by and large, domestic workers are absent from labour movements and media coverage. They are invisible in full view - populating homes and streets, but working behind closed doors, without contracts and outside of regulatory oversight. This results in exploitation, which leads to cyclical poverty, lack of opportunities, and unfulfilled potential. Izwi Domestic Workers Alliance is discovering new ways to organise domestic workers so that they can claim their labour rights and access justice. Yet Izwi is about more than labour rights. It is about radical self-determination. Our members are dynamic, ambitious women who want to fulfil their dreams and break the cycles of intergenerational poverty. In a context of economic downturn and widespread job losses, alternate income streams are critical. We are building on Izwi’s network of active neighbourhood groups to launch Izwi Enterprise, powered by a business enablement technology platform. Izwi Enterprise is a model in which we will provide our affiliated neighbourhood groups with inputs, credit, training, technology and other forms of support to allow them to build businesses. Of the business ideas women have generated, two have been selected to pilot in the next two months. Through testing and experimentation, we hope to identify viable livelihood opportunities for workers, a scalable enterprise development platform, as well as a model in which these business services can fund our labour rights and advocacy work. The Technology platform, which is still in design phase, would enable the following: 1) Learning management system a) Labour rights curriculum b) Business incubation curriculum c) Personal growth curriculum 2) Labour Rights Case Management Workflow 3) Business enablement Products and Tools a) Savings product b) Credit for business product c) Mortgage for home ownership d) Etc. (to be determined as we progress

Geography of focus (500 characters)

This idea targets domestic workers in South Africa, who come from throughout the region. South Africa's history is one of displacement and division of communities. South African women are still leaving their homes and children in rural areas to work in the cities. Furthermore, Johannesburg is a continental hub for economic migrants; over half Izwi's members are from Zimbabwe; others are from Malawi, Lesotho, and South Africa. These women are breadwinners for hundreds of thousands of families.

Building Bridges: What bridge does your idea build between people on the move and neighbors towards a shared future of stability and promise? (500 characters)

In a complex society riddled with tense divisions of race & class & ethnicity, Izwi's work attempts to build bridges by: -- engaging domestic employers in dialogue, labour law education, and support of Izwi enterprise ventures (matching funds, market access, in-kind & pro-bono contributions). -- bringing together local and migrant domestic workers into a community of mutual trust and support, in an context of ongoing xenophobic violence.

What human need is your idea solving for? (1,000 characters)

This is what public intellectual Achille Mbembe has to says of a longing of post colonial Africans, "Liberty is imagined, first and foremost, as the recovery of the capacity to once again take care of oneself". In the Izwi community, this is important not only in livelihood terms, but more powerfully in the restoration of a belief in their agency: a woman can stand for her rights and restore them, but she can also inspire others to do so - and together they are capable of imagining and building better futures together! Along the way, there are shared stories, laughter and losses, but also netball tournaments and baking competitions! Those women that have their cases resolved by Izwi feel an allegiance for having received critical support when in need, and stay long after that as part of the growing network of neighbourhood groups, each displaying it's own characteristics and preferences.

What will be different within the community of focus as a result of implementing your idea? (1,000 characters)

We hope that the Izwi enterprise concept, and related technology platform, will create: - Increased, measurable income and livelihood opportunities for domestic workers - Ability to access credit and generate savings towards future goals. - An incubation methodology, with links to finance and skills, that can be repeated and scaled - A feeling of empowerment, which inspires higher aspirations on the back of initial successes. The technology platform we are designing will also allow us to scale up our labour rights education and case work, resulting in: - access to justice for a greater number of mistreated workers, measured through individual case data - improved economic stability & quality of life through increases in pay and working conditions, as well as monetary settlements paid to workers.

What is the inspiration behind your idea? (1,000 characters)

At her own initiative, Caroline, a worker in Alexandria, started Izwi's first neighbourhood group. Within 2-3 months they had an active group of 40+ members, a competitive netball team, and a collection of funds to pay for Izwi activities and events. Other groups followed suit. We are so inspired by the ability of these women to organise and achieve with just a small amount of support in key areas. There is a constant, fundamental need amongst workers for better and more livelihood options, and the organic and rapid growth of Izwi's neighbourhood groups are the inspiration behind this idea: Can we harness the energy, social capital, and organising ability of domestic workers through a group model of doing business, which allows for pooled resources and shared risk?

Describe the dynamics of the community in which the idea is to be implemented. (1,000 characters)

As primarily black women, domestic workers bear the brunt of race, class, and gender discrimination. For the many who are migrants from outside the country, this is compounded by xenophobic abuse and fear of deportation. South Africa has some of the world’s most progressive laws supporting workplace rights for these workers, but most don’t know what protections are in place, or how to access them. Globally, domestic workers have proved difficult to organise, due to the isolated, informal and precarious nature of their employment. Most domestic workers are migrants, either within or across state boundaries. Most are primary breadwinners, and often their children have to stay behind with other family members. Izwi's focus to date has been on workers in the Johannesburg metro area.

How does your idea leverage and empower community strengths and assets to help create an environment for success? (1,000 characters)

Domestic workers know how to organise. They are members of burial societies, stokvels (informal credit groups), family-based support groups. They are also excellent networkers, and as is so often the case with migrants, they are resourceful and resilient. They know how to make small amounts of money stretch beyond what most would think it is possible. Finally, most of our members have extended networks of families and friends which become systems of mutual support in creative ways. We are building precisely on these strengths. By organising and building a technology platform that allows help them navigate a world where systems (banks, regulations, etc) do not work in their favour, we hope to remove barriers which will allow their organisational capacity, networking abilities, and business sense to thrive.

What other partners or stakeholders will work alongside you in implementing the idea, if any? (1,000 characters)

CURRENT: Small informal, unaffiliated groups of domestic workers in the Johannesburg area Socio-economic Rights Initiative (SERI-SA) South African Domestic Services & Allied Workers Union United Domestic Workers of South Africa Masenze Strategic Advisors Casual Workers Advice Office Praekelt Foundation LiveEngage FUTURE: Standard Bank Group

What part of the displacement journey is your solution addressing

  • Arriving and settling at a destination community

Tell us how you'd describe the type of innovation you are proposing

  • Platform: Creating a community or market that facilitates interaction between users and resources

Idea Proposal Stage

  • Pilot: We have started to implement the idea as a whole with a first set of real users. The feasibility of an innovation is tested in a small-scale and real world application (i.e. 3-15% of the target population)

Group or Organization Name

Izwi Domestic Workers Alliance

Tell us more about your group or organization [or lived experience as a displaced person?] (1000 characters)

Izwi began in Dec 2017 with a meeting of domestic workers in someone's home, and organically grew into a network of over 10 neighbourhood groups, 500+ members of active whats app groups, and eventually a full time case and outreach manager. To date, we have supported over 250 mistreated workers and facilitated ~R220,000 in cash payments to workers. We operate on a very small budget, with a lot of pro-bono and in-kind support. Izwi is made up entirely of domestic workers, with the exception of a few 'outsiders' (like myself) who provide some support and skills. We have a steering committee, and a larger committee neighbourhood group leaders that oversee governance. The membership of these committees is made up entirely of domestic workers, except for Amy Tekie, who works full time for Izwi (pro-bono) and sits on the steering committee. Izwi's biggest assets are the foundation of trust and support amongst our members, and our positive, asset-based perspective.

Website URL:

Type of submitter

  • We are a For-Profit Startup or Startup Social Enterprise

Organization Headquarters: Country

South Africa

Organization Headquarters: City / State

Johannesburg, Gauteng


Join the conversation:

Photo of Alejandra Aguilera

Hello Kessete, I really like the approach to human rights and social justice for women migrants. We are working in the same approach for human rights in the Mexican and Central American migration issues.

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