We need to calm the chaos that domestic workers endure

Domestic work is notoriously undervalued, whether it’s done by a professional or by family members. Picture:Paballo Thekiso

Domestic work is notoriously undervalued, whether it’s done by a professional or by family members. Picture:Paballo Thekiso

Published Oct 14, 2022


By Luke Kannemeyer, SweepSouth Interim MD

One only has to scan the news headlines to know that life is tough for South Africans at the moment.

We’ve endured state capture, civil unrest in KZN, and loadshedding. Whether you’re completely strung out or noticing a persistent buzz of worry, these events have taken their toll.

Good mental health comes partly from having a fundamental support structure to rely on, but sometimes we don’t even know if the lights will be on for supper.

Our electricity problems alone have been linked to increased rates of depression and anxiety.

The lucky among us have access to safety nets: loved ones to support you, savings in the bank, a religious community to connect with.

The world might be imploding, but at least you know what the next few days and weeks in your life are going to look like.

Domestic workers often don’t.

One of the most jarring things that comes across in our latest Report on Pay and Working Conditions for Domestic Workers Across Africa is how this profession is characterised by uncertainty and instability.

Domestic workers do essential work in society and yet they are often among the first to lose their jobs in a tough economy.

We’re all struggling, but for them, the situation is even more precarious.

In a ‘regular’ job, you’re protected by a contract and labour laws. You and your employer have certain obligations towards each other, and our social and legal structures keep you both in check.

And while there are laws that are supposed to protect domestic workers too, domestic work happens in a private space, and so is difficult to regulate.

Earnings are a particular pain point.

People are often unsure what to pay domestic workers and typically ask friends and family what they’re paying without necessarily considering any differences in the size of their home or the number of people and pets living there. The result is a flat rate regardless of the hours worked.

In addition, domestic work is notoriously undervalued, whether it’s done by a professional or by family members. Allowing individuals to decide what it’s worth based on their personal impressions means that wages are wildly subjective.

What domestic workers earn is barely enough to survive. At SweepSouth we found that, in terms of average pay, only those currently on our platform are earning above the minimum wage. We want domestic workers to earn a living wage, not just the minimum wage. Do you know what the minimum wage is? It’s R23.19 an hour, or R3710.40 a month (based on 160 working hours). That’s all. Most workers are earning less than that, and on average they’re stretching those rands to support three or four dependants. For those not using the app, their earnings have decreased since 2020 on average. Compare that to the norm of expecting at least a small annual increase in your earnings to keep pace with inflation.

Nor is this income steady.

Domestic workers are engaged in a constant hustle to get work from multiple clients. The majority only work for an employer for one to three years; a paltry 14% of SA domestic workers enjoy a tenure of more than five years. That doesn’t mean they make a living wage from that source - most have multiple employers, and 43% of those surveyed got an income from other types of work.

You are able to see the lack of consideration that is offered to domestic workers in the communication they get from employers. Only half of the workers we surveyed reported getting adequate notice that they were going to be dismissed, and half felt they were not dismissed for valid reasons. There’s only the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) to lodge a complaint with, and few workers can afford the time and emotional labour of conflict resolution.

While there are too many problems here for any one person or company to solve, we can all provide something. SweepSouth offers a modicum of structure for professional domestic work, with our app giving access to regular employment opportunities.

Be mindful of the uncertainty domestic workers are dealing with and try to mitigate that with whatever form of dependability you can provide: timely communication with workers, a nutritious meal, or access to safe and reliable transport.

Having one less thing to worry about can go a long way in improving quality of life.

Not knowing what the next day will bring might sound exciting when you want an adventure, but it’s frightening when what you need is a job.

The people who support us in our daily lives deserve the same sense of security that we need to thrive.

Luke Kannemeyer is the SweepSouth Interim MD.