Tough economic times leading to increased vulnerability of domestic workers

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The tough economic environment is leading to increased vulnerability of domestic workers. The high cost of living, rising unemployment levels and issues such as load shedding (rolling blackouts) have added to the challenges faced by domestic workers.

Organisations representing them say many are losing their jobs unfairly and some even without prior notice. Others are being underpaid and face shortened working hours. Adherence to fair labour practices and enforcement from authorities are also some of the challenges in this sector.

The tough economic environment, characterised by the high cost of living, higher interest rates and elevated levels of unemployment, has seen households under pressure to make ends meet. Attempts to cut costs by households have, at times, meant letting go of domestic helpers. Data from Statistics South Africa shows private households shed 30 000 jobs in the second quarter compared to the same period last year.

Organisations representing domestic workers say some workers have been let go without prior notice or a severance package. Some had their hours cut, meaning less income for them.

The United Domestic Workers of South Africa, Pinky Mashiane says while some employers do struggle to pay the national minimum wage, some simply refuse to abide by the law.

“There are employers who are paying their domestic workers fairly, others the national minimum wage, others are even paying beyond the national minimum wage which we appreciate a lot. We also know that there are employers who cannot afford to pay domestic workers, the domestic workers themselves will say that she is divorced, she is struggling or she has sold her car, they can see the situation that their employers are struggling as well, but there are also employers who are exploiting the situation and pretend as if they cannot afford to pay domestic workers the national minimum wages, they will underpay domestic workers while can afford to buy their dogs expensive food but domestic worker will be the last that is paid with the change that is left in the house.”

Union representing domestic workers call on employers to abide by the minimum wage: 

The organisation say households that cannot afford the basic minimum wage should rather reduce the hours worked by domestic workers so that they can have time to do other jobs to boost their incomes.

The high prices of basic foodstuffs means low-income earners are the hardest hit in trying to make ends meet.

Sector highly impacted by economic trends

IZWI Domestic Workers Alliance says this sector is highly impacted by economic trends, with households quick to retrench or cut down hours worked by domestic workers when they encounter shocks. And with the low wages that domestic workers earn, it’s hard for them to save for rainy days, leaving them with no cushioning when they encounter difficulties.

“The industry and the services provided by domestic workers are very entrenched in SA society, so as soon as things pick up again people tend to hire someone but it is very disruptive for workers themselves when those waves happen because in the meantime they have lost their jobs and they are not earning enough to save any money, so there is no cushion, and for the most part, people dismiss their domestic worker, they don’t go through the legal process, they just say don’t come back tomorrow so there is no payout, no warning, no notice period etc.”

Rebecca Kutumela is 59-years-old and has been a domestic worker for different families for about 16 years. She has taken her previous employer to the CCMA and her case will be heard at the beginning of next month. Kutumela was fired from her job after falling ill and was booked off work by her doctor. When she told her employer that she would not be able to report for duty, she was told not to return to work.

The organisations representing domestic workers say only about 3% of their clients are members of unions. This makes them easily isolated at their workplace and leaves them more vulnerable, making it difficult to fight for their rights.

Hard times for domestic workers: