Posted on April 20, 2012 / Comments Off / Show post tags
I only realised how weird it is that most middle-class South African families — even those in the lower end of that spectrum — employ a domestic worker when I went overseas for the first time. It was a surprise to discover that in many countries across the globe the luxury of having someone clean up your mess is one that only the very well-off can afford. We’re so reliant on this unusual luxury that it’s become a common joke the only thing keeping many from packing for Perth is that the Madam won’t know how to cope without her Eve.
Seriously, though, we’ve taken this abnormal status quo for granted for so long we tend to forget it’s a direct result of South Africa’s long and sordid history of keeping the majority firmly squashed down to the lowest level to supply cheap, uneducated labour for everything from industry to private homes.
While much has changed for the better, this legacy lives on in the million or more women for whom cleaning up after others is their only means to earn money. I’m by no means saying it’s wrong to employ a domestic worker or that it’s undignified work. Quite the opposite: the reality is that domestic work keeps thousands out of the abject poverty and the indignity that causes a family to suffer. It only becomes wrong — legally and ethically — when domestic workers are paid less than the minimum wage, which is ridiculously low to begin with. And it’s only degrading if working conditions are abysmal or, as was the most common complaint from domestic workers surveyed for one study, if they are treated worse than the family’s pet animals.
Sadly, so desperate for work are throngs of women that they’ll suffer being treated worse than a pet poodle just to earn a pittance. Unethical labour brokers, unions claim in the latest edition of The Big Issue, are all too aware of this and have no qualms swooping down and preying on the destitute to turn a quick profit.
Domestic workers are not the only ones being exploited, according to Cosatu, which accuses labour brokers of being today’s version of slave traders. But we’ve chosen to focus on domestic workers for this issue because they are often overlooked, under-represented and not given a voice. And, due to the very personal nature of their work, these women are so much more than mere employees: they form part of many South Africans’ home lives, help raise children and often become extended family. They deserve to be heard — and protected.
Editor, The Big Issue SA
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