How To: Navigate the politics of maids & madams

2012-12-11 13:23

It’s a relationship where the lines can be blurred, often more challenging and complex than any other in your own home. Zama Nkosi gets both sides of the story.

A pile of laundry, ironing and dirty dishes found me doing interviews for a domestic helper a few months ago – someone trustworthy, who could clean my flat to my standards, and with whom I could build a healthy relationship.

The first person I interviewed was a woman who wouldn’t clean; she just tidied up, and did so looking extremely sour. The next candidate had personal issues, but she worked.

The journey has had its ups and down – moments of dissatisfaction from me, and her.

Weekly, we navigate our relationship to suit both of us, trying not to be overly sensitive (or nsensitive) to each other’s lives.

Who’s the boss?

‘Finding the right domestic worker is one of the most difficult assignments ever,’ says Theresa Nkadimeng, a Joburg banker.

‘Not only do you have someone in your personal space but, unlike a regular workplace, the odds are usually stacked towards the helper.

I have had to fire several helpers for a variety of reasons, including petty theft and laziness.

Most get comfortable and start taking advantage of the relationship, and many go to the CCMA knowing very well that some of your grievances are subjective.’

While the CCMA is usually a last resort, there can be a certain awkwardness when it comes to addressing issues with helpers.

Often, dissatisfaction is aired during rants with friends and family, never openly between boss and employee.

An age difference, too, adds another dimension – telling an older person that you aren’t happy with her work seems disrespectful.

Nkateko*, 37, a project manager from Pretoria, solved that problem by only having helpers who aren’t too much older than her.

‘I had a live-in helper who was much older and she started taking the mother role too seriously. She’d complain about me sleeping in on weekends and there were days when she’d say she was too tired to do a chore. On the one hand, I’ve been raised to respect my elders, but on the other hand I’m her boss, not her child.’

Nkateko eventually let her go, and has also decided to not have a live-in helper. ‘Too much privacy is lost.

I also think that helpers feel more comfortable and at home with black bosses because they start seeing you as family when you aren’t.’

Shoe on the other foot

Speaking to domestic workers reveals a different side to the story; of madams who think that hiring a maid entitles them to have complete power over another human being.

Khosi Nkuna has been a domestic worker for almost a decade, and has come across a few Cruella de Vils in her time.

‘I’ve had madams who forget that we have emotions and standards.

Some even see their helpers, especially new ones they don’t yet have a bond with, as their personal slaves.

‘I had a boss who expected me to hand wash her underwear, and when I refused she threatened to fire me.’

Petty things, like listening to the radio while working, can become a huge issue, she adds.

‘Some people take advantage of the fact that we may not have many options, so they think anything goes. Over the years I’ve learnt that the job is not worth my dignity, so I moved around until I found people that I can get along with,’ says Khosi. She now has five clients, each requiring her services once a week, and she lives in her own place.

‘Being a live-in helper means dedicating your life to someone else. I have a child, a husband and a life of my own; I’m not willing to give that away. I don’t think being uneducated should mean I can’t knock off and have a life. For too many women, being a domestic worker means always shrinking away, not being seen, while making life smooth for others.’

The advice Khosi has for employers is this: respect is key.

‘Treat people well and they will do the same to you. Speak properly when you aren’t happy, get to know your helper and treat her as you expect to be treated at work. We aren’t less human than you; we have the same needs and issues, we just have a different job title,’ she says.

Shades of grey

To pretend that race dynamics don’t affect helper-employer relations would be naive.

According to NannyMaids, a domestic worker agency in Johannesburg, ‘Some helpers have a preference for which race they want to work for. Some feel black bosses are too strict, some feel white bosses ask for too much.’

For Candice Grant, a magazine writer, the racial undertones are there, but not glaringly obvious.

‘I’m sure we’re both aware of them. I suppose it makes me slightly more guarded when I interact with her, more careful not to offend her, and it makes her slightly more judgemental of me.’

But, says Candice, it’s a culture, class and age thing, too.

‘There’s a sense of feeling bad that I was educated and able to find a different job and she wasn’t. And that I’m younger than her yet she cleans up after me,’ she says.

Because of these subtleties, Candice finds herself holding back sometimes when she’s not happy.

‘Occasionally food is missing, but I could never tell someone that they aren’t allowed to help themselves freely in my home. How awful would that conversation be?

‘I also avoid any request that goes beyond the norm, like asking her to walk across the road to the shop to buy cleaning products. Also, I can’t ask her to hand wash – it just seems too mean, too manual labour.’

Happy unions

Leigh-Anne Williams-Mthethwa has had the same domestic worker just over 20 years, and she describes their relationship as a combination of sisterhood and colleagues.

‘Zanele first came to my house after I got married. She was slightly older than me and we had a few teething problems. I wanted to be the boss, and she felt there were some things she knew better than me about house-work.’

Over time, Leigh-Anne learnt to trust Zanele to do her job without being micro-managed.

‘She has helped me maintain a clean home and raise three children – the bond we share is very strong. Like all relationships we’ve had fights over the years, but mutual respect has helped us.

‘One of the lessons I learnt is that Zanele, too, has a life; she needs a break sometimes, she appreciates a bonus and a raise – just like I do. She’s retiring soon and I’ll take care of her for the rest of her life because she is my family.’

Money matters

In December 2011, Minister of Labour Mildred Oliphant announced the minimum wage for domestic workers in South Africa, with a provision that it should be adjusted for inflation on 1 December 2012.

Category A covers urban areas and category B is smaller municipalities. Domestic workers include child minders, gardeners and caregivers to the elderly, sick or disabled.

Category A:

» 27 hours of work or less per week = at least R9.85 per hour or R1 152.32 per month.

» More than 27 hours a week* = at least R8.34 per hour or R1 625.70 per month.

Category B:

» 27 hours of work or less per week = at least R8.33 per hour or R974.49 per month.

» More than 27 hours a week* = at least R7.06 per hour or R1 376.25 per month.

*No more than 45 hours per week (nine hours a day in a five-day week) or eight hours a day if they work more than five days a week (double pay on Sundays and public holidays).

Middle man

Agencies seem to work as the perfect go-between for domestic workers and their employers.

NannyMaids says it has a strict screening process and tries to match a worker with a boss she would be happy with, and vice versa.

It also make sure its domestics don’t have criminal records, and are trustworthy people that can be traced back to the agency should there be any problems.

‘We also have rules. For instance our maids aren’t allowed to go to work looking glamorous. Many employers, especially married ones, don’t appreciate this.’

The agency says the added benefit is that both parties are protected.

‘We have mediated for our domestic workers who have been asked to do things outside their job description, like giving their clients massages. We make sure that everyone is happy and that the working conditions are fair.’

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