5 things you can do to help your domestic worker

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A new report has revealed that many of the women who spend their days cleaning our homes and looking after our children are highly stressed and possibly suffering from depression, anxiety and even malnutrition. Photo by Getty Images
A new report has revealed that many of the women who spend their days cleaning our homes and looking after our children are highly stressed and possibly suffering from depression, anxiety and even malnutrition. Photo by Getty Images
  • Imagine someone in your home suffers from depression, and you’re not aware of it? Or that they’re spending time in your company secretly stressing about big problems in their life, without you even knowing?
  • A new report by SweepSouth, in which they surveyed thousands of domestic workers across the country, has yielded disturbing results.
  • It revealed that many of the women who spend their days cleaning our homes and looking after our children are highly stressed and possibly suffering from depression, anxiety and even malnutrition. 
  • Here's how you can make things a little easier for your helper.

The fourth annual SweepSouth Report on Pay and Working Conditions for Domestic Workers Across Africa polled domestic workers on issues like earnings, living costs, and mental well-being. It found that the pandemic’s economic fallout has had a devastating effect on domestic workers’ lives.

“Many of us would have predicted that the worst of the pandemic would be behind us a year later,” says SweepSouth CEO Aisha Pandor. “However, we continue to see job losses and economic hardship, and even though there are some encouraging signs, the general outlook is still grim.”

READ MORE | Francine Zana became a hotel cleaner at 19, now she owns a company that helps others get cleaning jobs - 'I want cleaners to be recognised, just like CEOs are'

So what can you, as the employer of a domestic worker, do to help make her life a bit easier?

1. Make sure you’re paying a fair wage

You can measure how you are doing in terms of pay using tools like the Living Wage Calculator. The average income of South African domestic workers is just R2 536 a month, but the average monthly living costs (rent, food, transport, etc.) are around R2 890, meaning they’re forced to take on debt. “The SweepSouth report found that 67% of domestic workers are in debt and feel hopeless about when they’ll be able to pay it back,” says Aisha.

2. Treat your domestic worker the way you’d like to be treated

Be sensitive to not just her physical health needs but her mental health needs as well. “Many domestic workers lead lives more challenging than we could ever imagine,” says Aisha. According to the SweepSouth report, 79% of the domestic workers polled were the main breadwinners in the household, and 64% were single parents, financially supporting an average of four dependants.

“They’re the main caregivers in their family, shouldering all the responsibilities and challenges this brings,” says Aisha. Many of the women in the survey said their mental health had negatively been affected by the past year’s events. When asked what worried them most in life, concerns about family problems were topped only by stresses about unemployment and finances.

READ MORE | Outsourcing has not improved conditions for domestic workers in South Africa

3. Help her with food

“Other surveys have pointed out that domestic workers most appreciate gifts of food from their employer,” says Aisha. Due to an inability to bulk buy, limited transport options and lack of refrigeration capacity, buying food is more expensive for your domestic worker than it is for you. So, if you can, buy bulk to get extra and share it with your domestic worker -- it will go a long way to easing the cost burden on her family and also help to improve nutrition. 

“Our report showed that many domestic workers and their households are sacrificing items like food to stretch their earnings each month, which strongly suggests a falling quality of life,” says Aisha. “This is of big concern, as it opens up domestic workers and their families to severe risk of malnutrition.” 

READ MORE | OPINION: Women will bear the brunt of recklessness during lockdown as health, finances are compromised

4.Get involved

You can do this through community outreach groups you’re a part of or at your children’s school, or perhaps work within your faith-based community to partner with a similar community in a disadvantaged area. Be an agent of change on social media, adding your voice to topics about domestic workers in your neighbourhood Facebook or WhatsApp groups. A small but powerful action could be to find out what school your domestic workers’ children attend and load that school as a beneficiary on the MySchool MyVillage MyPlanet loyalty programme. Every time you shop at one of their retail partners, they will donate money to the school you’ve chosen at no cost to you.

READ MORE | Hiring domestic help can be a bit conflicting for young black SA women - here's how to make your home a dignified working environment

5. Boost her skills 

Most domestic workers have one primary role, such as cleaning, but the SweepSouth report showed that the more roles are taken on the greater earnings. Child-care, for example, pays more than cleaning. Speak to your domestic worker to see what she needs to progress her career. It may be a driver’s licence so that you could give lessons, or it could be sending her on a course in childcare, first-aid, or cooking. It could even be as simple as helping her to earn money part-time by doing nails and buying her a home kit and nail polish.

Finally, change begins at home, and the minds you can most easily change are those of your family and friends. Discuss the issue of domestic worker pay with them and share insights you’ve learned. The adage of a rising tide lifts all boats is particularly true in this instance - by helping a woman who supports others, your efforts will have a positive ripple effect in the country.

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