Superwomen: Domestic workers will become more, not less, frequent (Image from:

Superwomen: One out of every five women in South Africa is a domestic worker. (This image is obtained from here. The same image appears on the side of an apartment building in Market Street, Stellenbosch.)

Domestic workers are ubiquitous in upper-middle class households in South Africa. And because of our peculiar history, domestic workers are often black while upper-middle class households are still mostly white. This feature of South African life strikes many visitors who spend time in South Africa. One interpretation is that domestic workers are being exploited. Last year, in a post that circulated widely, Maria Hengeveld, a graduate student at Columbia University who lived in South Africa for four years, questioned why employers don’t pay their domestic workers a “decent wage”. In July, Haji Mohamed Dawjee raised the ire of many Mail & Guardian readers when she wrote about her experience driving through an upper-class neighbourhood in Johannesburg:

I stepped into an alternate universe the other day, which literally stunned me – a dog park filled with domestic workers and white babies. I may as well have been a fly on the wall from the movie The Help – set in the United States in the 1960s. There were no dogs, just a community of maids and children who were not their own.

While Dawjee’s criticism was mostly aimed at (white) parents who don’t have time to walk their children but nevertheless have time to take the dog on an evening stroll, her reference to The Help insinuates an undertone of slavery. A week later, Victoria John of the Mail & Guardian summarised this viewpoint well:

But don’t for one second think that being kind to someone doesn’t mean those of us privileged enough to afford domestic help are not benefiting from a hideously perverted system. A system that is rooted in the roughly 350-year-old oppression of black people by white people, and a system from which mostly white people have benefited.

Strangely, none of the above stories consider the latest research on the domestic worker industry. Two largely neglected research papers have appeared within the last year that shed light on two aspects of domestic workers: their incomes and their standards of living.

But let’s establish some facts about the industry first. Personal services, of which domestic work is one component, constitute 5.4% of GDP. More importantly, it creates jobs: roughly one in five South African women work as domestic workers. Four out of five domestic workers work full-time (more than 28 hours a week). They are predominantly black and Coloured women, with an average of 6 to 7 years of education. This should suggest that they are the poorest of the poor, but in truth they are not. Because they have a job in a country that has a broad unemployment rate of 40%, they are not within the poorest four deciles; in fact, many of them may even be above South Africa’s median income. That is because domestic work is mostly an urban phenomenon, while poverty is most rife in South Africa’s rural areas.

Mostly because of concerns similar to those raised above, the South African government introduced a minimum wage in 2002. According to Taryn Dinkelman (of Dartmouth College), Vimal Ranchhod and Clare Hofmeyr (both of UCT), authors of a paper investigating the impact of this minimum wage, the increase in wages government proposed was substantial. Full compliance with the law would lead to a huge increase in the total wages to be paid to the majority of domestic workers. Economists and others were sceptical: Economics 101 would tell you that a price floor (a minimum wage) will introduce a gap between those demanding work and those willing to supply work, i.e. unemployment would increase. Also, experts doubted the ability of government to enforce the policy, given the decentralised nature of the industry. So what happened? Did workers’ incomes increase, or did unemployment in the industry increase?
Using evidence from the Labour Force Surveys of the 2000s, Dinkelman, Rancchod and Hofmeyr explain:

First, the introduction of the minimum wage appears to have had an almost immediate positive effect on the average hourly wage of domestic workers. The rise in hourly wages was substantial, at approximately 20%. The pre-law average wage was R3.67, rising to R4.37, which was actually above the stipulated minimum of R4.10 (for full-time domestic workers in urban areas).

Secondly, there was no significant reduction in the number of hours worked. This was reflected in the fact that average monthly earnings also rose by approximately 20%. Moreover, the probability of being employed as a domestic worker (for somebody in the labour force) did not decline, indicating that the law had no negative impact on the employment prospects of domestic workers.

This, remember, in the context of little or no enforcement. So why were the economists wrong in predicting a rise in unemployment? The authors of the paper do not venture a guess, but let me try. First, not everyone complied with the new law. Those employers on the margin of using domestic help probably continued to pay the low price instead of letting their workers go. (Actually, 60% of domestic workers still did not earn above the minimum wage.) Second, the fear of the consequences (penalties, social stigma) of non-compliance for those who could afford to pay more may have been worse than the additional cost of compliance, even when enforcement is low (although perceptions about enforcement may have been different). Third, the minimum wage law may have improved information asymmetries. Because the industry was unregulated for so long, and collective bargaining was non-existent, employees mostly determined wages with very little information or failed to adjust it annually for inflation. The new law afforded an opportunity to identify the common denominator.

So the new minimum wage law improved the incomes of domestic workers significantly. But wages are not the only benefits domestic workers get. Ronelle Burger, Marisa Coetzee and Carina van der Watt (all of Stellenbosch University) examine, in a Working Paper published last year, whether there are any additional gains from being a domestic worker rather than, say, a cleaner in a hotel. They consider two groups: domestic workers, and people similar to domestic workers in terms of income, location, marital status, household size and other such variables but employed in a different industry. They find that the households of domestic workers, in comparison to the control group, are significantly less likely to suffer from both adult and child hunger. Household members of domestic workers are also less likely to be discouraged work-seekers and spend less time searching for employment. They are also more likely to own a TV and radio, but not more likely to own books. Interestingly, despite being more likely to receive education bursaries, their children are not more likely than the households in the control group to attain a matric certificate.

What causes these benefits? Burger, Coetzee and Van der Watt attribute these benefits to the social ties that are created between domestic workers and their employers, social ties that reduce inequality:

In the South African context, where there is large-scale social exclusion and socio-economic divides between individuals of different races, education levels and income, domestic workers mostly find themselves on the wrong side of the divide. However, in most of the dimensions we consider we find that these women appear to benefit from their regular and close contact with their employers. Broadly, this can be interpreted as evidence that linking ties may help to improve the lives of poor households in South Africa and that there may be significant benefits to repairing these deep divides in the social landscape.

Different to the pundits above, who base their research on anecdotes and their own non-representative observations, the average domestic worker is not exploited. While the old adage says that you can tell a lot about a man by looking at how he talks to his mother, you can learn much more about someone by looking at how they manage their (domestic) workers. Of course there are instances of abuse which should be eradicated, but this is not unique to the domestic worker industry. (Marikana comes to mind.)  Instead of vilifying an industry because of sporadic and isolated incidents or because it highlights the stark realities of South Africa’s income distribution, let’s recognize that domestic workers benefit from higher incomes and the additional benefits of closer social ties with richer households. More than any other industry, it is here where we begin to tackle inequality and loosen the shackles of the past.