Domestic workers

Domestic workers bleed their jobs as cash-strapped employers emigrate and cut costs

PHOTO: Gallo/Getty Images

  • One in four South African domestic workers said they had lost their job in the past year because their employer emigrated, migrated or could no longer afford to pay them.
  • There has been a “worrying” rise in the number of domestic workers working seven days a week, but median earnings remain well below minimum wage.
  • While fewer respondents said they had been verbally attacked this year, more said they had been physically attacked at work – and among those who will disclose, many said they were physically or sexually assaulted at home.
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An impressive number of job losses because employers emigrate or cannot afford to pay them. A “worrying” increase in those working up to seven days a week. Skyrocketing cost of living, unmanageable debt and still no minimum wage. These are some of the conditions highlighted by a new survey of some 8,000 domestic workers.

The percentage of workers reporting physical violence has also increased over the past year.

The 2022 SweepSouth report on pay and working conditions for domestic work in Africa, published this week, is the report’s fifth annual release and surveyed domestic workers aged 26 to 41, mostly women, the majority of them in South Africa. She also interviewed several thousand domestic workers in Kenya.

SweepSouth is a digital platform that allows customers to book domestic workers. The survey interviews domestic workers inside and outside of its network.

Amid the rapidly rising cost of living, a quarter of South African domestic workers taking part in the survey said they had lost their jobs in the last year, the main causes being that their employers emigrated, “semigrated” to another city during Covid-19, or were unable to afford to pay them anymore.

Yet among those who remained employed, average earnings remained well below the national minimum wage. Over 40% of respondents said they also receive income from other sources.

More physical violence

The abuses were flagged again by the report. In 2021, the authors noted concerns about the rising rate of abuse reported by AS participants in the annual survey – 16% of AS domestic workers reporting being verbally or physically assaulted on their place of work in 2019, up three percentage points from last year.

While there has been a slight decrease in the number of people reporting verbal abuse this year, there has been an increase in the rate of reported physical abuse. In 2022, just over one in five respondents in South Africa said they had experienced verbal abuse, up from almost a quarter in 2021, while the same proportion (2%) reported sexual abuse in both years . But in 2022, 6% said they had experienced physical violence (compared to 4% before).

The survey also asked respondents about violence in the home. Although a much smaller number of respondents chose to answer these questions, of those who did, the majority of women and men surveyed reported experiencing verbal abuse at home. More than half of women surveyed reported physical abuse at home and 1 in four said they had experienced sexual abuse.

Underpaid

Income, financial stress and general working conditions were also flagged by the report.

In South Africa, the median earnings from domestic work for women were R2,929 per month for women and R2,797 for men. Gauteng and the Western Cape offered the highest incomes, with the rest of the country averaging only R2,000.

Men’s lower incomes were attributed to the fact that gardening brought in less money and caring for children and the elderly – mainly the responsibility of women – were the most lucrative domestic jobs.

Even childcare reached R2,997 per month on average with a median of five working days – well below the approximately R3,700 which is expected to be earned at R23.19 per hour.

A small number of domestic workers reported working more than ten hours a day. And although few people work seven days a week, there has been a “worrying increase” in that number, according to the report.

Nearly 75% of respondents said they commuted for an hour or more one way.

Debt also remains a problem, with South African respondents showing a higher level of debt than foreigners. Almost 40% of SA respondents were in debt, with almost 40% saying they felt their situation was hopeless. More than 15% said they owe money to more than their staff or institutions, and more than 80% said they would not be able to adequately cover their debt repayments in May, when the investigation was carried out.

The report found that while the average earnings of domestic workers in South Africa improved slightly after the minimum wage for domestic workers was brought into line with the national minimum wage, this does not tell the whole story. Among domestic workers working independently, there has been a sustained decline in earnings since 2020.

“While earnings are higher than what was seen before the Covid-19 pandemic in 2019, they now fall significantly below the minimum wage,” the report said.

“Overall, domestic worker earnings remain well below living wages and have started to lag behind the minimum wage. While we initially saw positive upward pressure with minimum wage increases in In recent years, this trend has begun to reverse in a disturbing fashion.”

Jobs are bleeding

This is likely to persist with current economic pressures and in the absence of better regulatory enforcement, the report warned.

“We have little chance of stemming the tide of job losses,” he added.

The report further raised concerns that rising costs – particularly transport costs – will on the one hand make it much more difficult for domestic workers to secure their future financially and on the other make it harder to get to work.

His expenditure breakdown indicated that in 2019 respondents’ average monthly expenditure was just below average income, in 2022 average income had barely increased and was now exceeded by monthly expenditure.

“The gap between earnings and basic costs for South African domestic workers has more than doubled since our last survey,” the report said.

Of the South African respondents, 82% were breadwinners in the household and 63% were single parents. The average household consisted of four people.