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South Africa is a country full of iconic, apartheid-era protest songs, but one of the most famous contains the lines: “My mother was a kitchen girl/My father was a garden boy/And that is why I’m a unionist/I’m a unionist/I’m a unionist!” [Editor’s note: other versions also end with "I’m a communist" or "I’m a socialist"]
As these lyrics demonstrate, domestic workers – nannies, maids, gardeners and drivers – have historically occupied an important space in South African society. And they continue to do so.
In South Africa, domestic work isn’t just a job. It is emblematic of the country’s massive social inequality which is rooted in its racially segregated past.
White South Africans rarely work as domestics, certainly not white men. But for generations, black and coloured (mixed-race) women have cared for other people’s children and homes – often at the expense of their own.
There are approximately one million women employed as domestic workers in South Africa.
Despite the introduction of a new minimum wage for domestic workers last December – those who work more than 27 hours a week will by the end of the year earn a monthly wage of between 1812.57 rand (approximately US$155) and 2065.47 rand (approximately US$175) – most domestic workers still don’t earn anything close to a living wage.
According to a new tool for employers, a living wage for a domestic worker with three dependents should come to R5056 (US$426.50), which is almost R3000 (US$250) less than the new sectoral minimum wage.
In addition, employers must contribute one per cent of a domestic worker’s wage (provided that they work more than 24 hours a month) to an Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) but a recent study shows that up to 50 per cent of domestic workers are not covered by this insurance.
The UIF is crucial in a sector where job insecurity runs rife. Many domestic workers have no formal employment contracts, for example, relying instead on verbal agreements which can be easily rescinded. Although the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) is there to act as mediator during labour disputes, many cases are not brought forward by women who remain uneducated and poor, and are usually unaware of their rights.
The lives of domestic workers are usually hidden from public view but last year, a massive debate was sparked following the publication of an article entitled A Day In the Life of a South African Maid.
It was a story of casual exploitation. The woman interviewed performed multiple domestic roles as a cook, cleaner and child minder for just R3500 (US$300) a month. It’s an amount way above the sectoral minimum but it is still not enough to stop her children from living in a cold, damp house with a leaky roof.
The conditions of employment for domestic workers vary from house to house, but along with miners, domestic workers have long endured one of the most exploitative employment relationships in South Africa’s history.
Apartheid laws meant that generations of black and coloured women were denied access to education, thus creating a labour pool of unskilled workers who have been funnelled into low-paying domestic work.
Cheryl Louw is one such person. The 44-year-old mother-of-two works for a white, Afrikaans-speaking family in one of Cape Town’s wealthiest neighbourhoods. She says her employers – a doctor and an engineer – treat her well, but her vocation was not of her choosing.
“Because I didn’t have education, because of apartheid, I have to do this job now. I didn’t want to be a domestic.”
Louw lives in the township of Khayelitsha, renting space in a wendy house [editor’s note: a low-cost pre-fabricated dwelling] in the back of someone’s property, which is a common occurrence amongst South Africa’s working poor.
With a monthly transport bill of R300 (approximately US$25) and rent and electricity costing her R650 (US$55) a month, Cheryl has very little left for herself once she has sent some money home to her mother and children in Oudtshoorn some 400 kilometres away from Cape Town.
Cheryl leaves home at 05.20 every day and takes a train, followed by a minibus taxi loaded with other workers in order to start work at 08.00.
It is hard work and long days but Cheryl, who has had this job for 15 years, says she is grateful for the work. “I was suffering without earning, when I was home. Now I earn something.”
But she has had to pay a price. “It’s painful. You sit with other people’s kids and you miss your own.”
She says she wants a better life for her 24-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter and constantly reminds them about the importance of education.
“I can’t even imagine that [my daughter] could do something like this.”
Dignity and respect
For the women who work in other people’s houses, being treated with dignity and respect is something that is difficult to legislate.
But the key issue remains how South Africa’s domestic workers will go from earning a minimum wage to a true living wage.
Despite the efforts of unions such as the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU), this may still be a long way off.
Myrtle Witbooi, the secretary general of SADSAWU and chair of the International Domestic Workers Network, is herself a former domestic worker.
She told Equal Times: “The sectoral determination has been a great help if workers are aware of their rights, but we still need to do a lot more education and awareness on the Basic Conditions of Employment Act.”
Although the new wage is more than domestic workers have ever earned, it is still not enough.
“No, we are not satisfied with the new wage and we are busy setting up a meeting with the Minister of Labour. For a domestic worker, a R100 increase doesn’t make a difference. Our demands remain [an increase of] between R3000 or R3500. We also want a travel allowance for those workers that need to travel daily to work,” says Witbooi.
According to Debbie Budlender, an academic and social scientist who wrote a paper entitled The introduction of a minimum wage for domestic workers in South Africa for the ILO, the other unfinished business of the minimum wage is the lack of pension for domestic workers.
Simply put, workers can only contribute to their retirement fund if they earn enough money to put some aside. Right now, the majority of domestic workers in South Africa do not. However, campaigners hope that once South Africa’s domestics start earning a living wage, they will no longer be condemned to spend their retirement years in poverty.
Luso Mnthali was born in Malawi, grew up in Botswana and now lives in Cape Town, South Africa. She writes for various publications such as The Huffington Post, Oprah Magazine (SA), New African Woman and This Is Africa. Her short stories have appeared in anthologies in South Africa and Canada. She is currently a Contributing Editor at Afripopmag.com.