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Pandemic’s Disastrous Effect On Domestic Workers

  • 3 min read

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have had a devastating effect on domestic workers’ livelihoods, shows a newly released report. 

According to the 2021 SweepSouth Report on Pay and Working Conditions for Domestic Workers across Africa, domestic workers are finding themselves victim to spiralling debt and having to sacrifice food to stretch their monthly earnings.

Conducted annually, the 2021 report is the first to be conducted across three countries, including South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria. More than 7 000 respondents took part, making it the largest and most detailed survey of its kind, and offering the most comprehensive view to date of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on domestic workers across sub-Saharan Africa.

The report takes an in-depth look at the conditions in the domestic work industry, in the context of significant economic hardships wrought by the pandemic. In Kenya and Nigeria, about 2 in 5 domestic workers lost their jobs due to the pandemic versus 1 in 5 in South Africa.

When it comes to basic living costs, the pandemic’s economic fallout has been disastrous for domestic workers. While living costs are down, it’s likely due to them sacrificing variable-cost items like food to stretch their earnings, which strongly suggests a falling quality of life.

On average, domestic workers are earning R2 536, while their monthly living costs are R2 890, meaning they’re forced to take on debt or reduce spending costs on vital items to make ends meet every month. 

SA finance findings at a glance 

  • 8% have personal savings or pension 
  • 2% have medical aid 
  • 17% are part of a stokvel 
  • 42% of their wages is spent on rent, 38% on food, 19% on transport 
  • 67% are in debt 
  • 56% owe money to a shop or store 

On a positive note, the survey revealed a clear correlation between better employment protections for domestic workers and their work conditions. South Africa’s extensive protections specific to domestic workers lay down basic rights and principles in achieving decent work for them. While Kenya has followed suit in some areas, Nigeria’s regulations are not as extensive as those in SA or Kenya.

Average number of days worked: SA (4); Kenya (5); Nigeria (6)

Work more than 10 hours a day: SA (3%); Kenya (13%); Nigeria (31%)

Work 7 days a week: SA (4%); Kenya (7%); Nigeria (33%) 

Potentially because protected by better laws, SA domestic workers are also least likely to have experienced abuse in the workplace. 

Verbal abuse: SA (23%); Kenya (42%); Nigeria (55%) 

Physical abuse: SA (4%); Kenya (15%); Nigeria (19%) 

Sexual abuse: SA (2%); Kenya (16%); Nigeria (19%) 

About 1 in 5 people polled felt their mental health had negatively been affected over the past year. Of those, 12.2% received a mental health assessment, with depression being the most common diagnosis (72%), followed by anxiety (25%). Issues weighing them down ranked from unemployment (52%), to debt (25%), and family problems (15%). 

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