/ 30 May 2018

Domestic workers carry the country

The abuse and disrespect that some of South Africa's 1.2-million domestic workers endure goes largely unchecked and unreported.
The abuse and disrespect that some of South Africa's 1.2-million domestic workers endure goes largely unchecked and unreported.

South Africa has progressed over the years and there have been moves to reverse the injustices of the apartheid government. But domestic workers, 24 years after democracy, are still beset by the same struggles as pre-1994.

Over the past week a picture of a domestic worker trended on social media. It was taken by someone who believed that she was being exploited, working seven days a week for only R1 500 a month. She pleaded for someone to find her another domestic worker job that would pay her more.

Just before that, we heard on the news that the former deputy minister of higher education and training, Mduduzi Manana, had allegedly assaulted his domestic worker. The two issues illustrate just how dire the working conditions of domestic workers are.

Domestic work is still part of the largest employment sector for women of colour who possess little or no formal education. Despite this, they have proved to be the backbone to the survival of many households and they continue to make the lives of the privileged more comfortable. Still, their lives continue to be characterised by abuse and exploitation.

Bad working conditions and low wages remain at the centre of domestic workers’ problems, which makes it difficult for them to rise above poverty. This is despite efforts to formalise their employment and protecting them with labour laws, with a minimum wage now being prescribed by law.

The salaries paid to domestic workers have always been an insult but the department of labour law has legalised this insult by putting it in law. Can the proposed minimum wage of R3 500 be seriously considered as the solution?

With the cost of living today, it is still not enough to reclaim black women’s dignity in the domestic sector. It is unsettling to think that, even with this law in place, many domestic workers will continue to receive a pittance. What makes matters worse is that they are also subjected to some of the worst working conditions.

Just like other people, domestic workers aspire to a better and more fulfilling future. But, considering their wages, achieving a better future for their families seems to be a pointless journey. Many find it hard to feed and clothe their families.

It is absurd how people respond to the discussion about a wage increase for domestic workers. It seems society expects them to be grateful for their jobs, regardless of their low wages. Of course, these women are lucky to have jobs but we cannot expect them to be grateful and content. Many employers hold the view that they are doing their employees a favour by hiring them, but they fail to recognise that their employees are the ones doing them a favour by working long hours at such low rates.

We need to get rid of the mentality that domestic workers need us more than we need them.

South Africa has a history of slavery. Black people have always been slaves in the work industry. They have always worked in physically demanding jobs and have been paid too little for it. To say that it is better for domestic workers and other low-skilled workers to be paid peanuts rather than to lose their jobs is to continue to enslave our people.

Many of the difficulties faced by domestic workers have mostly been attributed to race but it is evident that class is also a big factor. Studies have shown that the problems faced by domestic workers everywhere are similar, regardless of the race of the employer and employee.

A study of domestic workers was done in a rural area in Mpumalanga largely because most research has been about domestic workers in cities and there was insufficient research had been done in rural and semirural areas and small towns.

Domestic workers there experienced the same sort of treatment. Low wages were at the core of issues that affected the health of the women, largely because of stress.

We are a country that is seeking to bridge the huge inequality gap but we perpetuate this in our everyday lives by turning a blind eye to the plight of domestic workers.

We need to understand that this not only affects domestic workers and their families now, it also bears considerable misfortune for the future of domestic workers’ families. Their children are bound to be pushed into or settle for domestic work because of poor education, which will lead to the perpetuation of the cycle of poverty.