Claudia Hirtenfelder
Claudia Hirtenfelder

It’s time to challenge our assumptions about domestic work

Growing up in South Africa I don’t think we realise just how accustomed we are to the sight of domestic workers, nannies and garden workers; people who work for low wages taking care of and cleaning up after individuals that are wealthier than they are.

When travelling and experiencing other cultures, this subtle exploitation, which often goes unnoticed in SA society or is merely seen “as the way it is”, becomes ever more apparent and so to do the gender, racial, and class aspects of this phenomenon.

On my first ever international flight I had a stopover at Zurich airport and I remember the amazement I felt when I saw a white person mopping the floor of some or other fast food place. This is an honest statement, not a racist one. A realisation that made me tackle some of my taken-for-granted assumptions about which bodies belong where. I encountered a similar phenomenon when I visited Cape Town for the first time and most of the service jobs were now performed by coloured people not black people as I am accustomed to (is that not a problem in itself?) in Johannesburg.

I was lucky enough to be awarded a scholarship to study in Sweden and again some of my taken-for-granted assumptions were met by resistance. None of my Swedish friends have ever had a domestic worker or know anyone who has. This blew my mind! In SA domestic labour is one of the largest employment sectors in the country. Swedes simply clean up after themselves, do their own dishes, wash their own windows, iron their own clothing, tend to their own gardens, and look after their own children. Now, it is unfair to compare Sweden (a well-developed country with some of the most advanced human-rights initiatives) with South Africa (a still developing country with gross inequality and high unemployment) and if I were to even try, I would probably be faced with an onslaught of counter-arguments such as: “Well, we need more jobs in SA” and “It’s because more women are entering the labour market and need more help” (problems Sweden faces as well).

Please do not get me wrong, in this entry I am not trying to suggest that we get rid of domestic work. That would be naive. What I am doing is asking us to question our taken-for-granted assumptions about who does what job.

Why are most domestic workers in SA black? Why are men mostly gardeners and women mostly nannies? Why has the practice of certain bodies doing certain jobs been normalised?

Many of these racialised and gendered questions are also classed in nature: Why is it that domestic workers, nannies, and garden workers are generally from the lower class levels? Why when a slightly educated white teenager or 20-something takes care of a child “her” salary is much higher than that of a nanny? Why is it OK that nannies salaries are so low when they are taking care of children (supposedly people’s most precious achievement) but their employers are willing to indulge in an equivalent to a month’s salary on a good night out?

In short, I want us to ask ourselves what are our taken-for-granted assumptions regarding domestic labour and what the repercussions are! Why are certain bodies doing certain jobs and what are the racial, gendered, and class causes and implications of it?

These are all historical and material questions and I do not have the answers to many of them but I think the act of questioning is in itself a critical action that will help us move toward being a more accountable and responsible society.

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    • Sally Giles

      The problem in SA is that these jobs are seen to be inferior, they are not. In the West, it is perfectly acceptable to make a life out of being a cleaner or a gardener. They get decent money too. That’s the problem. In SA decent ordinary work is made inferior by inferior pay. Our job sector is racialised and gender specific. Outdated! Glad you raise the subject.

    • T.P.G

      Good questions :-)

    • Peter

      Please just think about it. Most domestic workers in S.A. are black simply because 80% of the population is black. Isn`t it logical?

    • Claudia Hirtenfelder

      Any idea why most of them are women?

    • Chris

      The racialised and gendered history of labour in colonial/apartheid SA persists to this day despite all talk about transformation and economic empowerment. When apartheid ‘ended’ the colonial structures (most notably, the state) that were designed to exclude black people from the economy were not dismantled, they simply changed hands. The state may now have a black face, but it is a still a state that retains most of the features of a colonial state, reproducing (with a few tweaks here and there, to keep up the blackface) the same socio-economic conditions for black people and white people as under the apartheid government. The state we have inherited, largely unchanged and unchallenged, has become the norm. Were South Africans given an option to find an alternative to the legacy of the colonial state and its ideological apparatus, which is essentially a white man’s game? We were told the game is now open to us and we must learn its rules. But we’re playing against a team that we can never hope to beat. The game was fixed long ago. Today, most of us don’t question why domestic workers are still black women and why gardeners are still black men because when we question that, we also question the status quo. And if we do, like the writer points out, the answer is neatly ahistorical: it’s just how things are. So well done to the writer for raising these uncomfortable questions, because it’s a way in to a broader discussion of what transformation really means in…

    • Philip Machanick

      It’s pretty simple really. In a wealthier society, most people don’t have domestic workers because wage levels are too high for that to be viable. This is why domestic workers are usually from marginalised and excluded categories of society. A more equal society does not have one category who can afford to spend disposable income equal to the wages of another.

      I’ve spent time in the UK, US and Australia, and no one I met there had a domestic – most did not even pay for a cleaning service.

      Why are domestics mostly women? One factor is traditional roles in society. Poor people are often deeply conservative. Another is that women end up as the sole breadwinner in dysfunctional societies.

    • Willem de Jager

      The reality of a white working class as the majority of a society first presented itself to me when I spent time in England years ago. The realisation was a gradual process that came along with several paradigm shifts as these people, these unmistakable working class white people came to occupy the same place in my mind as the black domestic worker and the gardener did back home. It wasn’t about race.

      What was I supposed to do with that realisation? It was an honest realisation and a neutral one. Two further aspects of the South African situation emerged: 1.) There is little hope for a poor white person in South Africa to lead a dignified working class existence; white poverty is seen as a social anomaly and evokes disdain rather than compassion. Secondly, since the vast majority of the South African population are black, it would be unrealistic to expect that the class system replacing the race system wouldn’t reflect this demographic. In every society on earth the majority are the poor (the systems that perpetuate that situation could and should be deconstructed).

      What we could do is challenge our preconceived notions and allow ourselves to become compassionate rather than judgemental (alchoholic?) e.g. towards the poor, woking class Afrikaner and supportive, rather than suspicious (BEE?) of the ambitious, hardworking Venda professional as we encounter them.

    • Momma Cyndi

      Ironically, in most other African countries, it is the men who are domestic workers in the home. Nannies are very rare as the women stay ‘home’ to look after their own houses and families.

    • Stephen

      Many years ago we moved to Germany. Shortly after arrival I joined a squash club, got to know the everyone there, including the club’s chairman. One morning, not long afterwards, I was leaving to go to the office when the refuse lorry was passing by. There running behind the back of the lorry handling the refuse bins was the chairman of the squash club. I did not know where to put myself – I wish then the ground opened up and swallowed me. But that was something I had to deal with, as sanitary engineers are key members of this society.

      Today, we have a cleaning lady who comes in once a week. But everything else that needs to be done – gardening, cleaning, sweeping the street – we do ourselves. You get used to it quickly enough.

    • Peter

      Claudia, I would think most of them are women because women are more empathetic compared to men in that type of work and it is important.

    • Mariano Castrillon

      Claudia, all our ills are due to lack of education.

    • sireal

      With respect to the gender issue in this discussion – hands up who has seen any women digging trenches on the side of the road, toting heavy loads, teetering on high scaffolds on construction sites. Lets not get all feminist here. Men still do the tough work. Today I saw my neighbours female domestic goddess sitting in the kitchen drinking tea and eating large slices of white bread while the male gardener sweated and strained to remove a huge tree stump.

    • Cam Cameron

      Most domestic workers — a.k.a. housemaids — are women for the same reason that almost all kindergarten teachers are women: the people who employ these people are not very comfortable hiring men to do that work. Men are seen as a sexual threat, best kept outside and far away.

    • useful

      Honest questions that have been asked since the beginning of time. Others might include: Why were slaves mostly black, even when enslaved in the middle east? Why do virtually all societies in the world place a premium on a lighter complexions – even amongst darker skinned peoples? Why are women all over the world seen as the automatic nurturers and responsibile for domestic chores? There are lots of “why’s” and we each need to do our own introspection and arrive at our own answers. Many countries, especially Asain countries have servants, or domestic workers, or chars – whatever name they may go by, and it is a fact of life that these people are either migrants from poorer countries or from the least educated sectors of society. its a global reality. Life is not and never has been equal. Middle class SA’s enjoy an unparalleled lifestyle, but the space/time that having a domestic worker or gardener provides them is most often taken up by bloody hard work in their careers. The stay-at-home- socailite wife is a very rare breed nowadays. I have family in the UK and in Australia and I also believe that generally, we are much more driven (even agressively so),we hold ourselves to far higher standards and we have far greater expectations of our children. That may well change over time.

    • Melani

      Unfortunately, the financial class divide in SA remains large, and as most of our population is in fact…black, most of our poorer people are..well… black.

    • Chris Moon

      It’s well past time that menial labour is seen as just that, some sort of job for the underling, labourers and the like are as vital to society as any doctor and the like are. Where would an engineer be without a bricklayer. Yes, South African society (the middle to upper classes) have been spoilt to the constant access of cheap labour but there should be no shame in the position, hell my grandfather was a farm labourer and my grandmother a ‘maid’ – and so were every generation before them ( i was born in the UK). However, the division of reward between the labourer and the fat cat directors and such is staggering and certainly harks back to an era of landowner and serf if not worse.

    • Tom

      Having lived in the UK for the last 18 years I have two comments to add. Firstly, you would be surprised how many of the street sweepers, cleaners, and other low paid jobs are held by so call “Afro Caribbeans” (ie black) people in the UK.

      Secondly, what I have found encouraging is how many of the middle class are now represented by people of all races, over the last decade and a half the change each time I return to visit ( aprox every 3 years) is very encouraging..

      Domestic workers are a significant luxury in South Africa, and reflect a fundamentally developed economy with a very large poor population (hence cheap labour). Another country where domestic employment is significant is the USA, a rich country with a significant poor population unlike Europe where most countries have a more even distribution of wealth.

      I absolutely agree that the questions being asked need to be answered, but essentially the current situation is predominantly economic, though the lack of opportunities that leads to the current situation is historical.

    • Andrew

      I came from England as a child and were amazed by people having “servants”. Unheard of. In business when I went to Malawi (recent times) I stayed in the company’s house. There was a “houseboy” who made your bed and swept up. A cook who bought the food and cooked. A gardener, a security guard (stood at the gate) – no woman to be seen.
      Heaven help the houseboy if he ventured uninvited to the cook’s domain.
      I asked what the security guard earned and it was equivalent to R300 per month. There were a number of manager’s houses around. I watched the next door neighbour’s activity where the manager was away overseas and the car would be driven out the garage, washed and polished and then driven back into the garage for the next day’s wash. Strange country, but there were many people being employed.

      Strikes me that when wages are controlled at a higher level, then the unemployment will rise. You can not break the laws of supply and demand and expect a different outcome..

    • Dave

      Some interesting commets. Leaving aside the current South African demographics, education levels, race-obsession (ever filled in an application for a South African passport, or many other official forms and noted the little boxes asking one to allocate oneself to one of four race groups ?). Let’s take a look at the minimum wage regulations.

      For my area; Knysna, the minimum hourly rate for a domestic worker (working less than 27 hours per week) is R11.27 ! Eleven Rand and twenty seven cents. It’s a disgrace. This is the OFFICIAL recomended minimum.

      We all need a fair reward for our labours, irrespective of whether, or not, there is a surplus of supply. This is not happening.

    • justin

      If the domestic worker, maid or gardener is treated with respect and paid properly within fair labour conditions, where is the harm? What is the difference between hiring a garden service and employing a gardener, or paying a nanny to look after one’s child rather than a crèche? If one dines out, there are obviously cooks and waiters in attendance. This is the service industry and to me the problem is exploitation of its workers rather than its existence. There obviously is the debate that the wage divide should be so narrow that no one should be able to afford the luxury of domestic help, but in SA this is not the case.

    • Brianb

      If people can afford to provide employment why not ?

      Only the extremely wealthy in developed countries can afford domestic help .

      In developing countries its a major source of employment.

      Lets not get carried away with semantics. The SA labour laws provide really good protection of workers. Slavery is long gone.

      As for the gender angle , people gravitate to work that they believe they can do.

    • IDawf

      Is “domestic workers” truly a South African concept? Initiated by the colonials?

    • karabo

      there is a book – From Servants to Workers: South African Domestic Workers and the Democratic State by Shireen Ally – she’s a sociologist who looks at this issue.
      Really interesting reading.

    • Walter

      We have a household help, P., come in 5 days a week, Mondays to Fridays. She comes in at 9 a.m. and leaves at 3 p.m. She helps us in the house with cleaning and ironing. The work is not demanding but allows us to do other things. Every Friday she is paid R850 for the week in cash which includes R100 for the taxi fare to her home, plus a fresh chicken. We have been to her house in the township which is bristling with life and she seems to be happy there. The house is small, brick-built, with a small kitchen garden and a fence around it. It’s rather basic, but she seems to be okay with that. However, her family, she has two children, aged 8 and 10, lives with their aunt in Zimbabwe and the money she earns in South Africa is sent there to pay for the children’s education. P. is happy with her earnings but being separated from her family can’t be easy. Looking at this set-up holistically, everyone scores for the moment and this is where we live. We would like P. to improve her skills, we would like to help her children to go further in their education if warranted. We would like many things to change in Southern Africa, but we have to start at home, where we can make a difference now, be it ever so small.

    • Paul Kearney

      A stupid article in a country with dangerously high levels of unemployment. The article ignores demographics and focuses on less than 10% of the population in traditional SA myopia. For me the implication is clear that forces beyond my control will dictate who I employ and how I employ them. Further that I should somehow be “aware” of the person’s race when I employ them. As a committed non-racist I will not do this. But the under current is clear so when my present absolutely fantastic domestic employees retire in a year or so, with my blessing and help, I will not replace them. That will leave me with one less thing to challenge.

    • Chez

      I think we have women clean our houses (those that can afford it) because women clean better than men. There are things men do better than women so please don’t see this as a sexist thing.
      I agree with the one comment that majority domestics are black because the majority of people here are black.
      I have a domestic who cleans twice a month as that is all I can afford. I treat her with respect and I trust her implicitly. There is no racism in my house and I know that she is able to live a life of dignity and pride. She was able to leave her abusive husband because of the skills she has as a cleaner – and yes, skills are required!

    • Yaj

      the answers to these questions are very simple : colonialism and dispossession,imperialism, racism, apartheid and capitalist class exploitation.

      What we need to do is start paying decent living wages starting with mining and the platinum sector. Honest hard work must has to be rewarded so as not to make crime attractive.
      There are some important things to do in this country and the world as a whole.
      We must restore human dignity with a universal basic income.
      We need to end fractional reserve banking and compound interest to prevent the gap between rich and poor widening even further.
      We must scrap VAT and income tax so as not to discourage endeavour and productive investment but tax speculation and unearned income through a financial transactions tax.
      We need to redistribute wealth through a land value tax.
      Ultimately we need to level the playing field and simultaneously achieve a sustainable steady-state economy that is in harmony with the planet and its resources.
      It’s a tall ask but it is neccessarv to avoid social conflict and ecological collapse
      Join this cause.