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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