The abuse and disrespect that some of South Africa's 1.2-million domestic workers endure goes largely unchecked and unreported.
Last week a group of Mail & Guardian readers rallied around to rage at a column published by Haji Mohamed Dawjee.
The column makes qualified statements that the white people of Johannesburg’s leafy suburb of Parkhurst might be delegating child-minding to domestic workers so that they are freed up to walk their dogs. It also suggests that child-minding might be a duty that the domestic workers had not agreed to. Mohamed Dawjee’s commentary elicited a fireworks display of fury.
Because I am not a mother, I cannot know exactly what I will decide about who looks after my child one day. But I do know that I would probably feel as angry as many of these readers if someone questioned my decision about this without knowing my reasons.
What you can’t argue with Mohamed Dawjee on is that there is something very wrong about what she saw that day: “a dog park filled with domestic workers and white babies”. It isn’t the child-minding that is the problem but the fact that all the babies were white and all the domestic workers were black, and the inequality that that picture signified.
It’s the possibility that while the duty might have been agreed to and even initiated by the domestic workers, experience shows that there are countless degrading demands made on domestic workers that go unseen.
Some commenters – on the column and in general conversation – refuse to acknowledge how disrespectful and damaging such chores are. Someone once told me that a maid must know that that is what is expected of her. There was also the belief that domestic workers should be grateful for their jobs, while a commenter on Mohamed Dawjee’s story said the domestics are probably “thrilled” to be minding children in the park and that it must be the “highlight” of their day.
What was implicit in the comments is that the job of the domestic worker is not that bad and if it is, then it’s really not the employer’s problem.
Yes, it may be the highlight of their working day … when you compare it to the unseen task of cleaning up cat vomit as her employer rushes off to the job of her choice because she is in the privileged position to make such choices.
What is probably most dangerous is the arrogance of many commenters who are quick to say that their employment is helping to fight poverty and inequality but who are slow to see that they might also be preserving it, intentionally or not, through their treatment of their domestic workers.
The abuse and disrespect that some of the country’s 1.2-million domestic workers endure goes largely unchecked and unreported, mainly because it happens behind the closed doors of their employer’s private property. Research done in 2010 by the Community Agency for Social Enquiry on behalf of the Services Sector Education and Training Authority offered up some shockingly recognisable experiences of domestic workers in their own words.
“The boss can … say wash the dogs even though it’s not your job to do that. Then she’ll tell me to put sunscreen on the dogs because they get burnt. Now the dogs run away from me when they see me because they hate sunscreen. Have you ever seen a dog that uses sunscreen?” a Johannesburg domestic worker told the researchers.
Another one said that if a domestic worker has “a problem and [you] talk to your boss, if you have an argument, they tell you that you can leave now because there are plenty of people from Zimbabwe that will work for cheap, that’s their advantage”. The research noted resentment by some people over the view that “employers treat their pets better than their workers”.
If we are generous, we can acknowledge that the measly minimum wage (now sitting at about R1 800 a month) has risen, and more labour legislation has been introduced. But this does not necessarily translate to improved conditions and the quotes are still too familiar to assume that it is not an ongoing problem.
Obviously, as in all industries, some employers treat their staff better than others. You might say: “But I pay my maid much more than what I know my friend pays hers”, “I gave her a whole bag of old clothes the other day” and “I pay for her kid to go to a proper school”. I’ll admit that I’ve said the same before. These small human acts of kindness are good things, and everyone should continue to do them.
But don’t for one second think that being kind to someone doesn’t mean those of us privileged enough to afford domestic help are not benefiting from a hideously perverted system. A system that is rooted in the roughly 350-year-old oppression of black people by white people, and a system from which mostly white people have benefited.
But white people are not the only ones that benefit from this anymore. In the past 20 years, more middle-class black, Indian and coloured people have adopted the privileged lifestyles previously only enjoyed by white people, and have also become “madams” accused of abuse. But it’s not about more black people hiring someone to help them clean their homes, it’s about the fact that it is mainly black people who remain without other employment options.
All employers need to recognise two things. First, we should be aiming to live in a world where no one has to clean up someone else’s shit in order to feed their children, and getting there involves more than giving someone your old clothes. Second, that the relationship between most domestic workers and their bosses is unique and particularly precarious because they are mostly isolated and work within a power dynamic based on race and economic status.
The small acts of kindness that flow from employers to domestic workers reflect this – they may be kind, but are nevertheless paternalistic.
Fixing this broken picture is made even trickier because of the very real, emotional and intractable bonds that develop between families and the domestic workers they employ.
One solution is that we treat domestic work like any other employer-employee relationship, and that begins with drawing up an express agreement of expectations between the two. If it needs to be written down that the domestic worker does not agree to put eczema cream on your pug, then do that.
But even if such contracts existed and wages were much higher, it wouldn’t significantly change the dynamic and it wouldn’t erase the gross inequality that plagues our country. So if you really hate poverty and inequality as much as you say you do, you might need to accept that for the lives of others to change substantially for the better, the lives of privileged South Africans will have to change substantially, too.
It might mean attaining a deeper understanding for how domestic workers live and what has resulted in their economic situations. It might mean not making assumptions for what falls under the banner of domestic help. It might mean not only giving someone your expired food but becoming active in empowering them and others with skills so that, one day, more people will be able to choose between cleaning your toilet and doing something very different.