domestic workers

"To be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others" - Nelson Mandela.

Domestic workers are such an assumed part of life in South Africa, that my refusal to have one seems strange and even selfish to some people. After all, how else will the millions of uneducated, even illiterate, especially among the older generation of black women in this country, find employment? Being a domestic worker, or ‘maid’ as old school South Africans still call them, is a good job, highly desired…so they say.

But I have never felt comfortable with the idea. Firstly, I don’t see this as meaningful, rewarding or empowering employment – which is what we need more of in this country (and the world in general). But even putting aside this idealistic objection, the fact is that while people still have black women cleaning their houses, nothing has changed in this country. The domestic, social and economic spaces remain, as under apartheid, framed by unequal power structures, or what peace studies thinking would refer to as ‘structural violence’.

In other words, a more insidious form of violence, which is not limited to physical harm, but limits access to resources and opportunities to certain groups only – resulting in the poverty, disempowerment and oppression of minority groups, or women, or people of other religions or races. Sounds a lot like apartheid, you might think, and isn’t that over now? Well, no. A lot has changed in this beautiful but troubled country – but equal opportunities, equal access and a ‘level playing field’ as such, are probably still decades away.

So I feel that hiring someone to clean my house would automatically put me on the wrong team, on the exploitative side of the dividing line that unfortunately still exists between those of us who grew up with all the privileges – like good education, and a choice of careers - and those for whom there is simply no other choice than to accept a really crappy wage to clean houses… that is, if they want to put food on the table (usually for multiple extended family members they are supporting, as unemployment is so high).

Many stories could be written about the courageous perseverance of African women in supporting their families, usually without any support from the fathers of their children… Many fatherless generations have resulted from our political history, and the social breakdown that is now the key feature of life from the poverty-stricken informal settlements to the ‘emerging middle classes’ of the big city suburbs.

These all deserve a mention, although they are separate subjects deserving whole essays of their own (maybe later): the beautiful strength in black South African women, and how much they are capable of, how they keep going (with such beautiful smiles) despite being abused, taken for granted and still remaining mostly sidelined in the ‘new’ South Africa; the broken hearts that are at the core of our country’s many issues – because families and the very social fabric have been torn apart – as Mother Theresa said, ‘in the home begins the disruption of peace of the world’; and the damaged masculinity of the black South African male – which continues to hamper gender relations in this country, fuels the massive crime rate, and spawns the likes of Malema and other muppets, who appeal to the disempowered masses with their extreme rhetoric.

So that’s the background, the context within which this continued exploitation of black South African women is taking place. It should receive more attention – from social justice and gender activists, especially. The government, in its turn, should be discussing solutions and alternatives- finding creative ways to generate employment and investing in mature age education and skills training (for all)… Instead, the focus is on men, strutting around making grandiose statements about nationalising mines and farmland and so on…none of which would be beneficial to this country or its people (only to those in power).

On a more simple, pragmatic level, I also believe strongly in everyone cleaning their own toilets, making their own beds, washing their own dirty laundry- what makes any one person too ‘special’ or ‘important’ to do this? The only way to remain humble and ‘real’ is to ensure you never think you have ‘arrived’ and now ‘need’ someone else to do all your menial chores for you. This same attitude is evidenced in offices, when ‘important’ people, who have PAs, make them do everything for them- buy their muffins, make their tea…grow up, man- you should be doing these things yourself, still, no matter who you are. In this country they even employ people in the office for the sole purpose of making tea for everyone and washing the cups… What? When did people suddenly become too important to do that for themselves? This is colonialism, still, here, today – people are living and behaving like colonialists.

Anyway what about the example you then set for your children, who will grow up lazy, irresponsible and spoilt. I well remember encountering the products of these households on my travels in London- where young boys in their twenties had never had to clean up after themselves, and assumed others in the house would simply continue to fill the space in their lives where their mothers and maids had been. These are the same boys who later marry in order to have someone to cook and clean for them. No man, this is the twenty-first century – Mothers, stop raising your sons to be useless and to view women as ‘domestic workers’!

In answer to all those who ask ‘but what would the older, uneducated black women do if everyone stopped employing domestic workers', I have one simple response: it’s not just the older black women who are faced with no other choices, still today – I have met young girls in their twenties in this position, many with tertiary level education, but unable to find other work (due to lack of positions, or continuing discrimination?) - this surely proves we are still doing something wrong in this country!  

The more complex response would involve coming up with long-term alternatives and lobbying for them, or creating them ourselves along the way (those of us who are more privileged and well-resourced, as well as those in local communities whose social-entrepreneurial skills, compassion for their community, and ‘oomph’ make up for a lack of resources initially). While these changes are growing organically, and being lobbied and fought for, however, the least people could do is treat their domestic workers with massive doses of respect and compassion – becoming involved in their lives in much the way the modern day corporation is expected to meet its workers demands for a greater ‘work-life balance’ and run programs to cover their ‘corporate social responsibility’.

What would this look like at the level of an ordinary home and family?

Well, start with a liveable wage – what do taxis cost to and from your home, what does food cost, what do her children’s school fees, books or uniforms cost? Have you ever asked, or bothered to calculate how on earth she could be surviving on what is today considered such a generous improvement on the scandalous wages of earlier days?

What about sick pay and other benefits you take for granted in your place of employment? Why shouldn’t domestic workers be granted these very human needs as well? Do you actually think your work, is more ‘important’ than theirs? Stop and think how much you rely on these ladies- especially if they look after your children as well… Nothing is more important than that!

Now, are you starting to see this salary and the level of benefits and understanding regarding unforeseen life events (sickness, death in the family etc.) she receives from you in a slightly different light?

How about asking her about her children – how do they get to school or crèche each day, who picks them up, who looks after them until she gets home much later, who does their homework with them? Before we moved, we used to encounter a lady and her small child on our way to work each day, trying in vain to flag down the full taxis between Llandudno (where she worked) and Hout Bay (where her adorable little girl went to crèche). It’s a good 45 minute walk each way, if taxis aren’t stopping – so we stopped and gave her a lift the few times we saw her. Now where were her employers in all this? Why couldn’t the child be given a lift in one of their expensive cars, or even allowed to remain with her mother for parts of the day, or a few times a week? Did they even know or care that she had to struggle like this each day? Did they complain and threaten to ‘dock’ her pay if she was late after managing this saga each morning?

This lady and her child still haunt me. She represents many women, many children, many unnecessarily difficult and frustrating situations… so much disempowerment… and so much heartless disrespect.


lyn said…
Since writing this post, I have been unsurprised to discover many cases of human trafficking involving forced domestic labour. This area is ripe for abuse, worldwide. There have been cases in South Africa, and cases of Africans being trafficked to Europe or the U.S. for this reason.
Here are just two links to look at if you want to know more about the subject, and this website has many, many others:
1. Video interview with a domestic worker:
2. “The rights of 90% of maids are violated”, businessman who brings in maids to Lebanon:
Anonymous said…
I just read your blog, heavy, heartfelt stuff, it must be so hard being confronted with the injustice of it everyday.

It is tough tackling racism and sexism at the same time and some attitudes make you feel like your banging your head against a brick wall.

I am a big fan of reverse discrimination policies in the employment and scholarship area. Also actually recognising child care as an investment and as qualified work that should be paid accordingly, that is, higher minimum wages for child care workers and compulsory paid maternity leave.

I know I truly do live in a lucky country, but the more voices like yours in South Africa the better it will get.

Totally agree re the domestic duties (hate that term but it covers a lot), no one should be above washing their own nickers. But I was a pretty grotty 20 year old in share accommadation that resembled a 'Young Ones set' who ate a lot of maccas. This was not a fault of my parents who taught me to cook and clean up after myself. It was more a case of having the freedom to eat junk every day and having way to much partying to do to worry about my living space. So I am not sure if your being too hard on the 'boys' or if they are just tossers (met my share of those).

Hum I did have to spend a while 'educating' my partner on cooking, cleaning and washing but I think I have beaten him into submission... the other day he provided me with a cooking tip and walked me through one of his recipies. He also chided me a couple of weeks ago, after coming back upstair from hanging out the clothes, for leaving a tissue in my jeans pocket. So there may be some hope for those 20 year old baby boys if they meet the 'right' influence.

lyn said…
Love it! So true, Min, yes you are right - come to think of it I went through a pretty messy phase myself ;D
Anonymous said…
I've been enjoying your blog posts - love the prisms.

I agreed with much of the critique of current approaches to employing domestic workers. In addition to a living wage and equal engagement is there not also an argument for professional development - supporting the educational ambitions of women currently in domestic employment. Even from my comfortable private school upbringing, waiting tables while menial, was useful in providing supportive funding for my studies. Domestic work as a stepping stone to other future employment opportunities seems like a constructive approach in a country where entering the job market, at all, is enormously difficult. Thoughts?

lyn said…
Great point, Nix - it would be wonderful to see this happening!

I neglected to mention this aspect, mostly due to a bit of discouragement on my part, wondering if we can even see reform on the most basic levels yet. So much arrogance and exploitation still.

But yes, this would be the ideal vision. Perhaps I will even give this some thought in terms of a great NGO to start one day!?

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