Masana Ndinga-Kanga
Masana Ndinga-Kanga

Of maids and madams: The case for domestic workers

Two weeks ago News24, in partnership with Code4SA, published a tool to calculate a reasonable wage to pay a domestic worker in South Africa. Based on data submitted by users, the news site found that on average a domestic worker in the Western Cape is paid R188.50 a shift, the highest when compared to other provinces such as Gauteng (R172) and KwaZulu-Natal (R150). These figures were above the minimum wage recommendation by the department of labour, which is R10.95 an hour, or R87.60 assuming an eight-hour shift.

There is, however, a stark difference between the minimum wage and a living wage — a contentious issue highlighted in the aforementioned articles. The calculator indicated that while most people are on average paying their domestic workers more than the legal requirements, this was not necessarily a just wage on which to live — often for sole breadwinners, travelling great (and costly) distances to get to work, sometimes as long as an hour each way (if not more).

Given that domestic workers make up 6% of the employed labour force in South Africa, the calculator is an important tool for rethinking how we engage with those who provide domestic services. Despite regulation entitling domestic workers to access to the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) or basic leave benefits, often enforcement is left wanting, leaving workers in a state of constant precariousness. This is further compounded by relatively low wages that tend to remain low year-on-year despite increases in the cost of living across South Africa.



It is often argued that increasing the minimum wage will ultimately make domestic services unaffordable, and contribute to further unemployment as more people choose to take on their cleaning tasks themselves rather than employ domestic workers. This economic efficiency argument for market-determined wages is a well-known one. But last week’s visit by Thomas Piketty has again brought to the forefront the problem with allowing the market to determine the distribution of resources if we aim for an equitable society. Economic efficiency (as understood by neoclassical economics) and economic justice are not inevitable outcomes of a market-led redistribution process, but they need not be mutually exclusive either. Conscientious citizens need not wait for state-led reform if they are looking to be agents of change and promote economic justice in their private affairs.

For starters, anyone employing a domestic worker must understand the historical context of the work and how it has been a channel of oppression. Domestic work was often a means of last resort for a number of women in South Africa, unable to find employment in the homelands and trekking to urban areas to find work in homes of primarily white families. Tied into the complex intersection of race, class and gender relations, predominantly black women were often removed from raising their own families while working as live-in nannies in the homes of their well-off white counterparts. Constricted by pass-laws, this often meant raising someone else’s children while relying on the generosity of family in the homelands/townships to raise your own.

The ramifications on the African family unit are not yet fully understood. And while the end of apartheid should have resulted in the culmination of the sector’s racial and class bias, instead we have witnessed an increase in the diversity of “madams” but not of domestic workers. The new black middle class has been conscripted into this employment structure with little consideration for its history and the inherent power struggle between “maid” and “madam”: I have often heard conversations of domestic workers nicking sugar and flour by the kilo, but fewer conversations on the socioeconomic struggle facing these workers each day. Understanding the complex challenges facing someone who works in domestic services might serve to open one’s eyes to their humanity.

Furthermore, thought must be given to how one can decrease the precarious employment situation of domestic workers. For example, while paid leave is expected for most employees, those employed in the informal economy can often be dismissed for failure to arrive at work despite good grounds. Sick, maternity and family leave are all expected in employment contracts in the formal economy, but the same benefits are not transferred to the informal economy. Similarly, over the year-end break a number of domestic workers might travel or take leave (as most people in the formal economy) but are not guaranteed pay over that period. Yet, these are things stipulated and clearly defined in a formal working contract — something well worth pursuing and negotiating with one’s employee.

This negotiation process may shift the power balance, and rightly so: domestic workers provide a valuable service to this economy that allows countless women to work, they should have a say in their working arrangements too! Even making a contribution to UIF is a step in the right direction, considering that 80% of domestic workers are without it.

But most importantly, is the issue of wages and personal development. In the same way that any young millennial entering the job market hopes to progress through the ranks of their chosen path, so too should any employer (even in personal capacity) give thought to the personal development of their staff — especially in consideration of job satisfaction and a resulting improved output. It is rather frustrating to hear people complain of workers not returning after the Christmas break when they had no incentive to do so. Offering a competitive wage and options of personal development may yield better results in the employment dynamic.

Of course, this is the tip of the iceberg amid a sea of complex interactions between domestic workers and employers and this short piece cannot do it the justice it deserves. But this is an important conversation to have not just for the employment conditions of those employed in the informal economy, but also for the impact of the nature of this employment on the families and the well-being of those employed therein.

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    • Brett FISH Anderson

      This is SUCH an important conversation and i have started having it on my blog:

      Will definitely reference this post in future posts
      love brett fish

    • Dutch550

      What sort of personal development should be offered?

    • Marty

      I pay my maid approximately double the standard shift rate and she still nicks my Foodstuff and ‘takes’ a sick day or two every month so paying more does not solve any ‘problems’ !

    • Masana Ndinga

      Thanks Brett – and also for referring me to your post, it’s comforting to know that a number of us are thinking intentionally about these things!

    • Voldemort Rupert

      Insufficient wages are not the only factor contributing to such action. It could be related to your attitude towards your employee. It can be something as mundane as maybe she can see that what you spend on your ‘dog’ is more than what she gets to support her whole family.

      There is also the kasi thing of ‘If you not nicking anything from your boss you’re just being a sucker.’ The only way round that one is to socialise in the kasi with her and her kgotsi’s. Once her community see you as one of them she’s less likely to feel good about using you in that way.

    • Voldemort Rupert

      You could always encourage and assist your employee/s to improve their education. Listen to the problems they have at home and help them to upgrade their living quarters or start a spaza at home. Even take out a pension plan for her/him.

    • Marty

      You make some valid points however – I don’t have a dog and I never see her as I am at work all day. She has managed to send her child to university to get an education.

    • Erhard van Zyl

      Riddle me this Tom… why should anybody be coerced into not being a thief?

    • RodB

      I would hate to be viewed as an oppressor, so I am afraid the many slips of paper that land in my postbox asking for work are discarded, and the personal visitors are courteously told that there is no work available.

    • Voldemort Rupert

      As Euclides said: “The world itself is stolen goods. All property is theft. And those who have stolen most of it make the laws for the rest of us.”
      Or Peter Tosh, “Every one is talking about crime. Crime. But tell me who are the criminals?”
      Basically ownership has no place in original culture and rule of law is the system by which privilege and ownership are protected. Even foreign investment is just high level robbery. By having the technology to exploit our mineral wealth, foreign companies then send that wealth ‘home’. All that gold and diamonds et al. They deserved to be mugged. That s**t is OURS!

    • Voldemort Rupert

      So maybe it’s nothing to do with you. Maybe it’s just her long-term survival strategy that’s allowed her to get that far and is an ingrained habit. If she does what you need and you feel she is the right person for the job, unless these thefts are causing you and yours to go hungry, I suggest you forgive her her trespasses, as they say.

    • Marty

      I have been banned from any and all decisions regarding the terms of employment and expectations so I will have to live with it – it just makes me feel better if I can let off some steam.

    • Graham Eddy

      Very interesting discussion.
      We pay UIF for our domestic worker, and had to explain to her the benefits and reasons for the payment. We could easily have just ignored it and she would never have known.
      Knowledge is power. Not sure which department should take this up – I would like to see free training courses for domestic workers in terms of their rights.
      However, I think domestic workers will always be on the back foot given the high unemployment rate. Unfortunately there is always someone willing to do the job cheaper.

    • CapitolCitizen

      No one has forced the black middle class to hire and oppress maids. It is a choice. You write, “The new black middle class has been CONSCRIPTED into this employment structure . . .” I find that an odd choice of words in the context of an article that is advocating for employers/madams to take responsibility for improving pay and benefits for domestic workers.

    • Erhard van Zyl

      Just remember what we are talking about here… theft of items from a home, not mineral resources from the third world. Do you think employers of domestic workers deserve to be mugged? When you see me will you mug me because of your preconception that I might be privileged?

    • Pan Jandrum

      By far the majority of domestic workers hold piece-jobs as the majority of households cannot afford full-time housekeeping. The linked site calculatuing a fair wage does not take this fact into account.

      I would also argue that, instead of calculating wages according to employee needs the actual work required should be calculated and costed. This should take into account the following:

      1. Houshold size: (adults, children, dogs etc)
      2. House size (no. of bedrooms, bathrooms, living rooms, total floor space)
      3. Tasks included beyond basic cleaning: (bed-making, washing, ironing, cooking, caring for seniors)

      Major tasks, usually required a few times annually, should be additionally re-imbursed (window cleaning, washing curtains, bookshelves, washing/cleaning kitchen cupboards, defrosting fridge)

      I have a helper who comes twice a month and earns R500 (1-person +dog household). Her work is not time-defined. Contract includes paid leave and bonus.

    • Voldemort Rupert

      I have no desire for material wealth. All I’m saying is it’s not the criminals under roman-dutch law that sin against creation. It is the owners of wealth and property that have sinned.

    • Erhard van Zyl

      I respect you for your views. Seems to me you must be a very spiritual person. However I would like to impress on you that any man/woman should be allowed to benefit from his own industry as long as it does not impact on another woman/man’s life and freedom. Nothing sinful about that, but the problem facing the world today is inequality. The 1% is weighing heavily upon us all. The concentration of the wealth away from 99% of the population is making the poor miserable and the middle classes depressed.

      As it relates to this article and your comments I you are using valid arguments against the 1% for justifying theft against people belonging the middle class… and then going all Eckhart Tolle on us.

    • CloneMe

      Really your’e actually justifiying the stealing.

    • Voldemort Rupert

      And I suppose you can justify private ownership – a highly controversial concept.

    • RodB

      ‘ It is the owners of wealth and property that have sinned…’

      In what way have I sinned in working hard, saving, giving our sons a good education, and putting money towards my retirement so that I am not a burden on the state later in life.

      Oh, and bad old me… bought myself the odd luxury here and there, now and then…

      Oh, and perhaps better old me… regularly do volunteer work for a charitable organisation…

      In all of the above, how have I sinned?

    • RodB