The staggering benefits of being able to afford a domestic worker


Domestic worker cleaning a counter. A recent study by the South African institute of Race Relations has shown a decline in the number of domestic workers.

The minimum wage for domestic workers for 2018 has been set. But it doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what your helper does for you, says Georgina Guedes.

In December, the Minister of Labour Mildred Oliphant updated the minimum wages for domestic workers for 2018 to R2 545,22 per month (for those working more than 27 hours per week).

While it’s a good thing that these wages are regulated, it’s shocking that the minimum – a minimum to which many people don’t even adhere – is so low.

To put it into perspective, some friends and I were just last night discussing our household budgets for our families of four. We easily spend R2,000 a week on groceries alone. And yet, many of us expect the women who look after our children and clean our houses to support their families on R2,500 for an entire month.

Because of the legacy of our past, in South Africa, domestic labour is cheap and plentiful. Just about anyone with a decent income can afford to hire a helper to clean their house at least a couple of days a week. Those with children can easily afford the services of a caring and devoted woman to look after their children while they are at work.

Again, here’s some perspective. A friend of mine in London went back to work because she was going stir crazy being at home with her children. She worked out that the difference between the salary she earned, and what she had to pay to her childminder was the equivalent of a jar of olives a week.

Another friend had to delay having a second child until her first child started school because she couldn’t afford double childcare fees (in the UK, while education in subsidised, early childcare isn’t).

My sister-in-law, living in New Zealand, pays a woman NZ$27.50 (R243,40) AN HOUR to come in once a week to clean her home.

READ: Are domestic workers the new slave trade?

If you consider these international stories, it’s clear that we have it ridiculously easy and cheap in South Africa. And although it’s fair to say that finances are tight for most South Africans, the fact that middle class citizens can have our homes cleaned and our children cared for, for a pittance, frees up our time and budgets to achieve and enjoy other things.
While we are certainly benefiting the women we employ with the salaries we pay, even high-paying employers (those who pay in the R4,000 to R6,000 bracket) are still benefiting from a certain amount of exploitation.

Of course, the domestic worker would rather have the job, and I imagine that if the minimum wage were set higher, a significant portion of these workers would lose their full-time employment. Even so, we should be cognisant every day of the exceptional privilege we enjoy in not having to struggle to afford the luxury of having household staff.

The extra R2,000 a month that we could be paying our domestic workers – which still wouldn’t bring us anywhere near international rates, but would improve their lives considerably – is saved, invested or spent by us on improving our lives. We buy that extra bag of nutritious groceries from Woolies each week, or we save towards our retirements, or we send our children to private schools, or we pay off a flashy new car, while wringing labour from a domestic worker who will never have any of these things.

I’m not suggesting that we all immediately double our domestic workers’ salaries – although wouldn’t that be great? I am merely pointing out that these working relationships that we so often take for granted, or in some cases even resent, are a mechanism for improving our own lives.

This isn’t just because we don’t have to devote hours of our days to housework, but because the very small amount that we pay these women allows us to afford so many other things.

I hope, dear reader, that you are not paying your domestic worker the minimum wage. But even if you are paying her far more than that, I hope you treat her with respect and gratitude, and afford her a modicum of dignity, because she makes your life possible and profitable in so many different ways.