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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.