Athambile Masola
Athambile Masola

The problem with ‘buying, swapping and selling’ domestic workers

I recently came across an advert about a domestic worker. The advert was a Facebook post written on a group called “Westville buy, swap and sell”. The group is used by a variety of people wanting to get rid of household appliances. I became uncomfortable when a black woman was made part of the list of “things” one can buy, swap and sell. This is not the first time I’ve seen an advert of this nature. The first time was a poster on a notice board outside the flat where I lived. It was something along the lines of “Do you need a half-day maid? R100/day”. On a separate occasion I’ve noticed emails asking people if they need a “char” and elaborating on the domestic work done by a black woman with an English name. I’m sympathetic to the fact that domestic work is an option for many working-class women and it often seems that their employers help them by advertising on their behalf so they can find more work.

But why do these ads make me uncomfortable?

One of the things pointed out in the Westville buy, swap and sell advert was that the woman, whose services were being advertised, became an object like a household appliance. I was left wondering whether the domestic worker had been part of crafting the advert with her employer. I also wondered if she was happy with how she was represented. Among other things the ad mentioned that “we have never locked valuables away and nothing has ever gone missing”. The ad also mentioned that she is great with animals and would make a great carer for the elderly.

Gallo

Gallo

At face value there’s nothing wrong with this gesture. In fact the responses on the group indicate that this is normal and even kind on the employer’s part. The problems with such advertising however are layered — race, class and gender. The black woman is being advertised as a commodity owned by a white man who no longer needs her services. Such practices have a history where black woman’s bodies were advertised for slavery many centuries ago. It is also significant to point out the power relations between working-class people who need employment and middle-class people who can employ someone for more than 20 years and discard her when they no longer need her.

The advert made me think of the film The Help and the poem My Name by Magoleng wa Selepe. The Help is a movie about domestic workers in the American south during the Jim Crow laws. The film would have us believe that in spite of the political system, black women were happy to be employed and looked after their employers even if they treated them badly because they were still part of the family. I have heard this many times from white people: “Mary has been with us since I was born. She’s a part in of the family now’.”

The glaring problem with such sentiments is that Mary is not part of the family because white families don’t treat each other the way they treat Mary. The poem My Name looks at the very idea of black workers whose names are changed in order for them to secure employment. In the black community a similar thing may happen where the domestic worker is not addressed by her name: she might be referred to as “Sisi” or “Auntie” or her clan name is used. The point is their identity often changes when they become a domestic worker because their status is that of a worker and that’s all that matters.

The obvious problem with the advert I saw on Facebook is that it is potentially racist and that the racism is not overt. Is it ethical for people to advertise their domestic worker on social media or send emails on their behalf when they no longer need their service? If the advert isn’t racist then it’s possibly an example of the fraught nature of the role of the domestic worker. It also highlights the position of black working-class women who are dispensable and vulnerable in a system that sees them as the help and balancing their humanity at the same time.

Would it be better if I saw an advert for domestic workers on a website created by black women advertising themselves the way middle-class people have recruitment websites? I’m not sure but I would probably not be as uncomfortable. The agency of a black woman in the position of “the help” is compromised when she is advertised on a website that also advertises chairs and random household appliances. The advert also calls into question privilege and the things people say and do when they think black people are not there to see, hear or judge what they say about black people. The email and the poster I mention are an example of both white and class privilege: if someone in a privileged position wants something (or no longer needs domestic help in the case of this domestic worker on Facebook) they can explore certain avenues to get what they want.

Domestic workers are still a strong part of a culture reliant on class dynamics. Given our economic climate and bad education system many people would argue that being a cleaner or a gardener is better than nothing if someone doesn’t have the skills for other employment. This is probably true but we must consider the implications of these power relations whether we like it or not.

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