Every August, South Africans have a national conversation about gender equality and women’s issues, one of which is domestic work. They contribute immensely to the life of society yet this work remains unrecognised.
About one million people in South Africa, mostly women, are employed as domestic workers in private homes. Domestic and care work allow the economy to function smoothly, yet the workers themselves remain overworked, underpaid and unprotected.
At the start of the democratic era, “maids” and “servants” became “workers” through their inclusion in labour legislation such as the Basic Conditions of Employment Act and the Labour Relations Act. South Africa is known to have one of the more progressive legal frameworks for domestic workers globally. But, in reality, most domestic workers do not enjoy the rights they are entitled to such as decent working hours, overtime pay, public holidays, paid leave and fair dismissal procedures. One reason for this is employer non-compliance, reinforced by the department of employment and labour’s failure to hold employers accountable for their legal obligations. According to a report by Wiego, an international organisation that focuses on informal employment, only 20% of domestic workers in South Africa are registered with the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF), despite the fact that it is required by law.
Why do employers fail to comply with labour laws? Because employers still treat domestic work as an informal arrangement between two individuals, rather than a form of employment regulated by labour laws. Simply put, domestic workers suffer from low social status in the public’s eyes. Domestic work is perceived as “unskilled work”; household activities such as cooking, cleaning and child-rearing were traditionally performed by women while men were left to do “real” work outside the home. More than that, the low social status of domestic work is a product of “structural and historical degradation in which gender, race and class identities play a large role”, according to a DPU document, Domestic Work is Real Work: Repoliticising the Discourse on Gender, Citizenship and Global Injustices.
Many well-intentioned employers feel it is enough to pay their domestic workers “well”, (that is, above the minimum wage), perceiving that a generally good relationship exists. They may provide their workers with meals and offer gifts or special favours. Although this is commendable, it is unjust for domestic workers to rely on an employer’s sense of fairness, rather than accepted legal norms that recognise their dignity as human beings.
Working in the home and caring for families is intimate work, and the dynamics between domestic workers and employers are complex, with the power balance in favour of the employer. These complexities can be exacerbated by differences in language and culture. Although some domestic employment relationships are positive, many are riddled with miscommunication and crossed expectations from both parties. Even in positive relationships, one party is often unaware of the other’s frustration and discomfort.
Both workers and employers benefit from a working relationship that is based on respect, clarity and professionalism, rather than assumptions, ambiguity and favours. A written contract of employment provides a domestic worker with a sense of job security and clarity on the terms of employment. Monthly payslips not only provide a written record of overtime hours, wage calculations and deductions for social protections such as the UIF, but can also be used as supporting documentation for a loan or rental application. Employers are required to provide domestic workers with both documents by law. Adhering to labour laws, putting the employment agreement into a written contract and initiating regular check-ins and performance reviews increase the potential for an employment relationship to succeed.
A critical step in overcoming South Africa’s race and class divide is to stop treating domestic workers as household servants. This shift begins with the actions of each employer, and with genuine effort from the state to enforce domestic workers’ hard-won rights.
The Socio-Economic Rights Institute and the Izwi Domestic Workers’ Alliance created a guide to assist employers of domestic workers to manage the employment relationship. It includes detailed information on terms of employment (such as working hours, wages and leave), UIF and the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act (COIDA) requirements, guidelines for maintaining a healthy employment relationship and templates for contracts and payslips. The guide also gives information about performance reviews, disciplinary procedures and dismissal processes, and assists employers to handle difficult situations by providing answers to frequently asked questions.
As Women’s month ends, employers of domestic workers are presented with an opportunity to consider their commitment to gender equality. Formalising domestic work is fundamental to creating a culture of equality and mutual respect in our homes. Doing right by domestic workers is an important step in achieving equality for all women in South Africa.
Download Employing a Domestic Worker: A Legal and Practical Guide here.