Managing a Home Comes Naturally

Abigail Sibanda, a 29-year-old domestic worker in Johannesburg, says managing a home comes naturally.

“I spend my day cleaning – sweeping, washing, doing the dishes, ironing,” she told “Since I grew up doing the work, it’s easy to me.”

On the three days a week that she works, Sibanda catches a 7 a.m. bus to the northern suburbs of Johannesburg. For a full day’s work, she usually earns between R80 or R90. Minus the R15 she has to pay for roundtrip transport, she takes home between R65 and R75 a day. Most of her earnings are used to buy food and house supplies.

One of 850,000 Domestic Workers
There are roughly 850,000 domestic workers in South Africa, according to government’s most recent Labour Force Survey. The vast majority – 95 percent – of domestic workers are women. The number of domestic workers in the country has fallen in recent years – a total of 9 percent since September 2000. Still, domestic workers play a crucial part in South Africa’s economy, and make up a full 7 percent of the nation’s total workforce.

While many domestic workers are employed under informal or verbal agreements, government has tried to regulate the sector. Minister of Labour Membathisi Mdladlana recently amended the sectoral determination for domestic workers, raising the minimum wage for most full-time domestic workers to R997,04 per month.

Government has also established other rules. For example, employers are not allowed to withhold payment from a domestic worker for training, clothes, cleaning supplies, or any food supplied during the work day.

An employer may not require or permit a domestic worker to work more than 12 hours, including overtime, a day. There are also special provisions for work on Sundays and public holidays, as well as for work after 18:00 and before 6:00 the next day. Sick leave, holiday leave and family leave are also regulated in the document.

Despite government interventions to regulate the sector, more than 20 percent of the nation’s domestic workers earn less than minimum wage, according to a new study by the Southern African Migration Project and Wits Palliative Care. According to the report, Migration and Domestic Workers: Worlds of Work, Health and Mobility in Johannesburg, one out of five of the 1,100 domestic workers surveyed earn less than R500 a month. The majority earn between R501 and R1 000 a month. Almost 45 percent of the respondents work six or seven days a week, and most work between eight and ten hours a day. Most of those surveyed worked for one employer.

Sibanda’s Story
Sibanda grew up in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, the middle of seven siblings. Her father, who was 60 when she was born, couldn’t afford to pay for school fees for all the children, so Sibanda was only able to complete her education through grade seven. As one of three girls, she was taught how to cook meals, clean up after the family, and manage a household.

In 1998, at age 22, Sibanda was the mother of a two-year-old girl. But her limited education and a lack of jobs meant few opportunities. It was difficult to support her daughter. She decided to risk coming to South Africa to find any work she could.

“I came to South Africa because there were no jobs in Zimbabwe, and I was not doing anything – just sitting and waiting,” she said.

She came to South Africa alone and moved in with an aunt , who stayed in a flat in Johannesburg’s Berea neighborhood. Immediately, she sought out job leads from her aunt and anyone else she met. She was willing to work any job that came her way.

Eventually, she met her husband, also from Zimbabwe. He works as a personal driver, earning about R1 300 a month. Together they had a daughter, who recently passed away.

She says that while her nine-year-old daughter still lives with family in Zimbabwe, the infrastructure is eroding. In her family’s community, there is often no water, no electricity, and very limited food in the shops.

“It’s better in South Africa than in Zimbabwe, because here you can get some job, and you can get something to eat,” she said.

What exactly IS the minimum wage for domestic workers?

According to the recent amendment to the 2002 sectoral determination on domestic work under the terms of the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, No 75 of 1997

Effective 1 December 2005, minimum wage for domestic workers who regularly work more than 27 hours per week in most of South Africa’s municipalities is R5,11 per hour, R230,10 per week, and R997,04 per month. Minimum wage for those who work 27 hours a week or less is R6,04 per hour, R163,08 per week, or R706,63 per month.

In rural areas, minimum wage for a domestic worker regularly employed more than 27 hours a week is R4,15 per hour, R186,69 per week, and R808,92 per month, while minimum wage for those who work 27 hours a week or less is R4,90 per hour, R132,30 per week, or R573,26 per month.

The rates are set to increase on December 1, 2006 and again on December 1, 2007.

Text and photo: Gretchen L. Wilson, January 2006

All reporting by Gretchen L. Wilson, © 2005

My Wage   stories   women   writing

Comments are closed.