The price of poverty for domestic workers

By Kim Harrisberg

Welcome to South Africa. A country so beautiful and diverse it lures tourists from around the world to climb its mountains, swim in its oceans, drink our wine and visit our museums. The world marvels at the supposed unity in a country that was racially divided by draconian laws only twenty-two years prior. Undeniably, South Africa is an aesthetic gem that has changed tremendously over the last two decades. Yet to scratch beneath the surface is to reveal the gaping social, racial and economic inequality still rife across the country, together with certain mentalities that may have only become less conspicuous but still just as ubiquitous. One of these is the mentality surrounding cheap, exploited black labour.

When Adi Eyal, the head of Code4SA (a civic-tech lab) had a conversation with other parents at his children’s nursery school, he realised that the idea surrounding domestic worker’s salaries were based largely on speculation and social norms. He decided to create a tool together with colleagues Osman Siddiqi and Jason Norwood-Young. What formed with time was the Living Wage calculator. This interactive calculator allows employers to enter the daily or monthly salary they pay their domestic workers. Using University of Cape Town’s National Income Dynamics Study (NIDS) data, the tool then estimates what percentage of your domestic worker’s basic expenses (transport, food and education) are being met by this salary. The tab ‘show assumptions’ allows for the calculations to be both explained and tweaked according to each domestic worker’s individual circumstances, including family household size, amount spent on food and travel costs.

I worked with Code4SA to give this calculator a human face. I interviewed three domestic workers in the Western Cape to hear about their monthly expenses and challenges. Primrose is a South African who uses 41% of her salary for her son’s university education. Justine is a refugee who fled the DRC during a time of conflict and spends 45% of her salary on food for her two children and husband. Nosiphiwo is a sangoma [traditional doctor] who uses 48% of her salary on public transport. These stories are important for many reasons: they take employers behind the scenes into their employee’s personal lives, a reality many would rather avoid; they outline the magnitude certain expenses (such as transport) bite out of their employees monthly salary; and they humanise what is the very inhuman response to a valuable service benefited by many South Africans.

These stories, together with the Living Wage calculator, made use of visual census data embedded from Wazimap to contextualise the environments in which Primrose, Justine and Nosiphiwo were living. For example, in the ward in which Primrose lives, 21% of the population were earning between R40,000-R75,000 annually, placing her amid the highest earning bracket in this specific ward in the township of Khayelithsa.

When this multimedia story was published via News24, one of South Africa’s most popular media platforms, the response was quite astonishing. It seemed we struck a nerve, particularly among the most vocal and racist of South African domestic worker employers. Adi patiently and kindly responded to the array of comments that followed, you can read about some of those here. As he responded to one commenter: “Wading into the mucky comments is generally a bad idea but…there are likely people reading who are on the fence who might be swayed by the vitriol. I was hoping to provide some balance to the debate.”

A google form at the end of our article asked readers how much they pay their domestic workers. We received 10,000 usable responses in a few days. It could be argued that despite the apartheid aftereffect of exploitative labour relations, this is a topic that weighs heavily on the consciences of South Africans.

On November 21st 2016, South Africa’s deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa announced a new national minimum wage of R3,500. This sparked further debate across the country, with some critics calling it a slave wage, and others worrying it would cost them employees. For domestic workers, the monthly wage in major municipalities stands at R2422.54 per month. This is still offensively low, and a barrier to challenging the mental perception of the domestic worker in South Africa as an entity rather than a human being.

As I wrote in the story: ‘Domestic workers are an essential — and versatile — part of South Africa’s labour force. They cook, clean, babysit, act as security, occasionally as drivers, caretakers, do the laundry, walk the dogs and house sit. There are 53 million domestic workers worldwide, which is almost the size of the South African population, according to the International Labour Organisation. And, in South Africa, domestic workers make up 6.8% of the employed population, according to the Labour Force Survey.

I am proud of my country for many reasons. It is an incredibly fraught but intensely rewarding place to call home. I believe we have come such a long way since the days of apartheid, yet starting from such a low base means we should be careful of easy self-congratulation. As one of the most unequal societies in the world, we have a long journey ahead of us both economically and socially, but most importantly, psychologically, in the way we value and respect human relationships. This is an important step in breaking the cycles of poverty, racism and inequality in our country.

There are two quotes from Primrose and Nosiphiwo’s interviews that stayed with me long after the interviews, and I will end with them both below:

“I am a domestic worker because I want a better life for my children,” said Primrose. “It is a job, it is better than nothing, but I wouldn’t want my children to be domestic workers.”

“Do not let any person make you enslaved,” said Nosiphiwo. “We all have families to support, you see? We all have wishes. So, if someone makes you a slave, speak it out.”

SO WHAT NEXT?
  1. If you employ someone in your home or at work, commit to paying them the living wage.*
  2. If you know someone who is an employer, commit to talking to them about paying a living wage in 2017.
  3. If you don’t know what the living wage is in your country, make it your mission to find out and actively talk to others about it. A valuable step would be for employers to have conversations with their employees about what their living expenses are.

*If  you’re SA based use the living wage calculator mentioned in this blog to calculate what it is, if UK based have a read of Jess, from the Living Wage Foundation’s blog for more. Otherwise if you’re from another country and you know what the living wage is there, please post it below for othersbio-pic

 

 

About the author: Kim Harrisberg is a multimedia journalist whose work focuses on an array of developmental topics such as migration, healthcare, women in rural communities and street traders. She recently completed her Masters degree in African Studies from the University of Cambridge. You can follow her on twitter @kimharrisberg

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