Domestic workers

Outsourcing has not improved conditions for domestic workers in South Africa

In South Africa, approximately a million people, mostly black women from marginalized backgrounds, are employed as domestic workers by the middle class.

Some are employed as full-time domestic servants and live on their employers’ premises, usually in garden rooms. For resident domestic workers, their work and personal life are often unclear. They lack freedom and independence, as they are required to devote most of their time to the needs of employers.

Others are employed as full-time domestic servants but live elsewhere. They usually rely not only on the wages of their employers, but also on their goodwill when needed. The production and performance of off-duty domestic workers continue to be monitored by their employers. They have little autonomy over workloads and have the added burden of being pressed for time while completing their tasks before returning home.

A large portion of domestic workers are also employed part-time or temporarily, where they work different hours and pay schedules for different employers. This creates economic insecurity and instability.

During the last years, outsourced domestic cleaning services have increased, changing the dynamics of paid domestic work.

The outsourcing of domestic work and its impact on domestic workers have not been well studied in the South African context. To understand this evolution, I made my Mastery and Doctorate studies on the growth of outsourced household cleaning services. The aim was to gain a better understanding of how outsourced domestic cleaning service companies operate, how it changes domestic work, and what the costs are for domestic workers.

My results show that outsourced domestic cleaning service companies contribute to the racial, class and gender stereotypes of domestic work. Outsourcing has not been enough to raise the status of this profession, nor to improve the working conditions of domestic workers.

The problem of paid domestic work

Despite various employment arrangements, the relationship between employers and domestic workers is characteristic personal and unequal. When domestic workers are seen as “part of the family”, employers have the power to provide or withdraw assistance as they see fit. Employers may offer gifts, kindness, and care to get harder work and favors from domestic workers, which is often a strained part of the working relationship.

The second problem is the dehumanized treatment of domestic workers. Employers often refer to their domestic workers by derogatory names, but expect them to be treated formally and respectfully. Some employers treat their domestic workers like children, which reinforces their inferiority.

Third, degrading working conditions contribute to the devaluation of domestic work. The absence of employment contracts, low wages and poor social security reinforce the inequalities of race, class and gender in this profession. In essence, personalism is a problem and adds to the conditions of exploitation of domestic work.

In the case of outsourced services, the main characteristic of domestic cleaning service companies is the transformation of a personal bipartite employer-domestic worker relationship, with all its dependencies, into a tripartite working relationship between a client (former employer), a domestic worker and a manager or franchisee. Contacts and dependence between domestic workers and clients are reduced and interaction remains focused on professional tasks. Customers pay a fee for the cleaning session and have no other liability to domestic workers. Managers do the emotional work by ensuring (presumably) the well-being of domestic workers.

Another feature is that the workload, tasks and working hours are controlled to formalize domestic work. Domestic cleaning services attempt to professionalize the services provided. They often use checklists for tasks, methods and cleaning supplies. Some domestic workers are accompanied by a supervisor to monitor services.

Third, cleaning is not only rendered professionally on a physical level but also on an emotional and aesthetic level. Domestic workers are expected to be friendly and professional when in contact with customers. Domestic workers are mostly dressed in neat uniforms and transported in company vehicles.

By emphasizing the need to professionalize domestic work, domestic cleaning service companies present themselves as experts in the field of domestic work. In doing so, domestic workers benefit from a perceived high status and supposedly better working conditions.

But what are the costs for domestic workers employed by these domestic service companies?

The costs

First, domestic workers have little influence on the power dynamics of the employment relationship. In a rationally organized bureaucratic system, domestic workers lack agency and control over the work process. They must follow instructions on how and when to clean, and they must engage in emotional labor providing friendly and professional service to customers.

Second, the division of labor within teams increases supervision and control by team leaders, clients or business managers. Comparing workers and teams to each other, and ranking them based on their skills, speed, and customer feedback, further breaks down the agency of domestic workers.

Third, domestic work is depersonalized to such an extent that customers do not recognize domestic workers. They don’t know them or don’t want to know anything about their personal life. Contact between customers and domestic workers is kept to a minimum – they come to clean as quickly and efficiently as possible. They become nameless bodies that clean the houses.

Fourth, domestic workers often lack the respect and dignity of their managers expected in a professional work environment. Many domestic workers are employed part-time, which reinforces the lack of job security and stability. They are poorly paid and receive little or no service. Domestic workers clean according to a new set of rules and they are disciplined and punished by different authorities (such as customers, supervisors, managers and franchise owners).

Therefore, the shift from personal employment from a domestic worker to a contracted and anonymous team of cleaners suggests that South Africa may be moving towards a society where paid domestic work is disposable, dehumanized and temporary. Using outsourced domestic cleaning services is to eschew the duties and responsibilities of the middle class, avoid dealing with poverty issues, and devalue paid domestic work.

The country needs to rethink the practice of outsourcing as it seems that domestic workers continue to be overlooked. Even in the practice of “professional” household cleaning services, domestic workers are underestimated in South African society.