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

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PHOTO: Gallo/Getty Images
PHOTO: Gallo/Getty Images
  • One in four SA domestic workers reported losing their jobs in the last year as their employers emigrated, semigrated, or couldn't afford to pay them anymore.
  • There has been a "concerning" increase in the number of domestic workers who work seven days a week, but median earnings remain well below minimum wage. 
  • While a smaller number of respondents said they were verbally abused this year, more said they were physically abused at work - and of those who will disclose, many said they were physically or sexually abused at home. 
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A staggering number of job losses as employers emigrate or can't afford to pay them. A "concerning" increase in those working up to seven days a week. Spiralling living costs, unmanageable debt, and still not earning minimum wage. These are some of the conditions highlighted by a new survey among some 8 000 domestic workers.

The percentage of workers reporting physical abuse has also increased in the past year.

The 2022 SweepSouth Report on Pay and Working Conditions for Domestic Work across Africa, released this week, is the fifth annual release of the report and surveyed domestic workers aged 26-41, mostly female, with the majority in South Africa. It also surveyed several thousand domestic workers in Kenya. 

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

Amid rapidly rising living costs, a quarter of SA domestic workers participating in the survey reported having lost their jobs in the last year, with the biggest causes being that their employers either emigrated, 'semigrated' to another town during Covid-19, or couldn't afford to pay them anymore.

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

More physical abuse

Abuse was again flagged by the report. In 2021, the authors noted concerns that the rate of abuse reported by SA participants in the annual survey had been on the rise – with 16% of SA domestic workers reporting being verbally or physically abused at their workplaces in 2019, up three percentage points from the previous year.

While there was a slight decrease in the number who reported verbal abuse this year, there was an increase in the rate of reported physical abuse. In 2022, just over one in five respondents in SA said they suffered verbal abuse, compared to nearly a quarter in 2021, while the same proportion (2%) reported sexual abuse in both years. But in 2022, 6% said they suffered physical abuse (up from 4%).

The survey also asked respondents about abuse at home. While a much smaller number of respondents chose to answer these questions, among those who did, the majority of both women and men respondents stated that they faced verbal abuse at home. More than half the women respondents reported physical abuse at home and 1 in four said they had suffered sexual abuse.

Underpaid

Earnings, financial stress and overall working conditions were also flagged by the report. 

In SA, the median domestic work earnings for women came in at R2 929 per month for women and R2 797 for men. Gauteng and the Western Cape offered the best earnings, with the rest of the country averaging just R2 000.

The lower earnings for men were attributed to gardening bringing in less money and childcare and elderly care – mostly falling to women – being the most lucrative domestic work.

Even childcare came in at R2 997 per month on average with a median five days worked – well below the roughly R3 700 that should be earned at R23.19 per hour.

A small number of domestic workers reported working upwards of ten hours per day. And while not many worked seven days per week, there was a "concerning increase" in this number, the report said.

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

Debt also remains a problem, with SA respondents showing a higher level of indebtedness than foreigners. Nearly 40% of SA respondents were in debt, with nearly 40% of these saying they felt their situation was hopeless. Over 15% reported owing money to more than their people or institutions, and over 80% indicated that they would not be able to adequately cover their debt repayment in May, when the survey was conducted.

The report found that while the average earnings for domestic workers in SA improved slightly after the minimum wage for domestic workers was brought in line with the national minimum wage, this didn't tell the full story. Among domestic workers working independently, there was a sustained decrease in earnings since 2020.

"While earnings are above what was observed pre-Covid-19 pandemic in 2019, they now fall significantly below minimum wage," the report said.

"Overall, domestic worker earnings still fall far below a living wage and have begun to lag behind minimum wage. While we initially saw a positive upward pressure with the increases in the minimum wage over the past few years, this trend has begun to reverse in a worrying fashion."

Jobs bleed

This is likely to persist with ongoing economic pressures and the absence of better enforcement regulations, the report warned.

"We face little prospect of stemming the tide of job losses," it added.

The report further raised the concern that rising costs – particularly transport costs – would firstly make it much more difficult for domestic workers to secure their future financially, and secondly make it harder for them to get to work at all.

Its expenditure breakdown indicated that while in 2019, respondents' average monthly expenditure came in just under average earnings, by 2022, average earnings had barely increased, and were now exceeded by monthly expenditure.  

"The deficit 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.

 
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