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Ten Struggles Domestic Workers Face

The 2022 SweepSouth Report on Pay and Working Conditions for Domestic Workers for South Africa and Kenya was recently released. This is the fifth year that SweepSouth has released this report and each year paints a picture of what domestic workers go through and endure in these respective countries. Below are 10 struggles that domestic workers face and have been facing in recent times. 

Earning below the minimum wage

The report’s findings show that despite the fact that the minimum wage for domestic workers was brought in line with the national minimum wage, many domestic workers still earn well below the minimum wage. 

Increased earnings being absorbed by the rising cost of living 

Even though, in South Africa, earnings increased slightly due to the fact that the minimum wage for domestic workers has been brought in line with the national minimum wage Luke Kannemeyer, SweepSouth Chief Operating Officer, notes that while this may look positive, it needs to be noted that the cost of living has risen tremendously since last year. The report highlights that domestic workers are spending 5% more overall on things such as food, transport, school fees, electricity, rent and more. 

Longer work weeks

It is worrying to see that compared to last year’s report, there has been an increase in the number of domestic workers working seven days a week — likely a result of trying to ease their economic pressures. This could have an impact on mental and physical well-being — the former continuing to be a concern as one in five respondents had their mental health negatively.  

Mental health struggles

When it comes to mental health, this year’s report shows that 1 in 5 had their mental health negatively affected in the last year, a near-identical number to the 2021 report. The largest aggravator was unemployment and the largest source of comfort was through church attendance or spending time with their religious community. The ability to access support through religious communities and through family friends will have been heavily impacted by lockdown regulations.

No access to green and blue spaces

Another unfortunate result is that it seems as though many of the mechanisms used by men to combat mental health issues are not so customary for women. While men most frequently used exercise and time outdoors to care for their mental health, this was much less prevalent

among women. This is likely impacted by the lack of safety in the communities where most domestic workers live and the fact that women typically have unpaid domestic responsibilities, such as caring for children and cooking, that they need to attend to when returning home from work.

In addition to this, the communities that domestic workers typically reside in have little to no access to green and blue spaces as a result of bad spatial planning. And while a case can be made for more recreational spaces in these communities, there are a number of other issues that are more of a priority. For example, better access to good education and housing.

Abuse at home and in the workplace

The survey further reveals that 21% of South African workers faced verbal abuse in the

workplace, 6% physical abuse and 2% experienced sexual abuse. Of those facing abuse at home, the majority of women and men respondents stated that they faced verbal abuse, with the same proportion of women noting that they faced physical abuse at home as men who faced verbal abuse. Around 1 in 4 women shared that they faced sexual abuse.

High job loss this past year 

The impact of the pandemic on domestic workers can still be seen as many lost their jobs due to employers moving to different cities as a result of people being able to live and work from almost anywhere. Semigration is just one of the reasons why 25% of South African domestic workers and 69% of Kenyan workers lost their jobs in the last year. Another key reason is simply that employers can no longer afford domestic workers — a result of COVID-19, the knock-on effects of the war in Ukraine, and the pressures felt by escalating food prices around the world. 

The biggest breadwinner in the family 

The survey notes that many domestic workers are the sole breadwinners in single-parent households. Around 62% of South African citizens stated that they received a child support grant in the last 3 months. This tracks closely with the number of single parents and is a testament to the success of the South African social safety net. However, the financial pressure on domestic workers is hefty with almost 60% of breadwinners supporting four or more people.

Little ability to save money 

While some small encouragement can be taken from the fact that savings rates have increased since last year’s survey and consequently, more South African workers report having sufficient income to save, these rates are still very low. Around 1 in 5 domestic workers in South Africa participate in a stokvel (rotating savings) and less than 1 in 10 reported having any other savings or pension. 

High debt levels 

The survey also reveals that there is a high level of debt among South African national domestic workers. Over 15% of those domestic workers that are in debt owe money to more than four people or institutions, and over 80% reported that, at the time of being surveyed, they would not be able to adequately cover their repayments. 

You can read the full SweepSouth Report on Pay and Working Conditions for Domestic Workers for South Africa and Kenya here