The constitution of cleaning

By Lauren Howell

Thandeka needs at least R 1000 a month to survive. She is her family’s sole breadwinner with two young children and her sister and nephew who are financially dependent on her. Thandeka has no skills or formal training and does the only job she can – she works twice a week as a domestic worker. Five students live in the house she cleans; four of the bedrooms have a computer and three of the residents have a car. The housemates spend an average of R8500 every month, and Thandeka earns less than R700 every month. And yet, according to South Africa’s labour laws, this is considered to be fair labour practice, as Thandeka is paid more than double the minimum wage.
Because domestic workers work within private homes, Cosatu says, they are often forgotten or simply not noticed and are therefore highly vulnerable to exploitation and unequal power relations. “For quite some time in our country, domestic workers were not protected by the existing labour legislation,” says Jonathan Walton, Regional Director of Grahamstown’s Black Sash office. The Black Sash is an advice office which advocates for and advises local domestic workers of their labour rights. In late 2002, Parliament passed legislation which created unprecedented rights for domestic workers. “Today, domestic workers are legitimately categorised as employees and enjoy the full protection of the existing labour laws,” says Walton.

Sectoral Determination Seven currently protects domestic workers, and legally entitles them to a minimum wage, employment registration, a contractual employment relationship and Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) registration. The legislation has been in place for almost four years. Elfrieda Auret, the owner of a private domestic worker employment agency, believes the legislation has made an impact and that it was necessary to stop “slave labour”.

I recently conducted an anonymous survey among Rhodes University oppidans, which sought to determine the impact of the legislation on the lives of local domestic workers. At the end of 2006, there were approximately 2500 students living off campus, with about 87% of student households employing a domestic worker. Students like Meggan Slabbert, a psychology Honours student, employ a domestic worker simply because they don’t have time to clean their own homes. This is a sentiment common among student employers.
Recent statistics show that almost 70% of local residents are unemployed. Some students echo the feelings of Claire Marais, a second year law student, who believes that the current unemployment situation in Grahamstown is unsustainable and that “people need a job, even if it is just to clean a house.”

Many survey respondents commented on the current situation, saying that local domestic workers are “grossly mistreated” and have a “shitty deal.” According to one respondent, “domestic workers are severely taken advantage of in Grahamstown because the students living here are often unsure of the correct way to treat and pay them.” The correct way to treat them and pay them is contained within the domestic worker legislation. Thus the situation begs the questions, are students aware of the legislation and, more importantly, are they adhering to it?

Sixty-seven percent of survey respondents acknowledged their awareness of the existence of legislation regulating the employment of domestic workers, yet many are unsure as to the exact details. One of these details is a provision of the Basic Conditions of Employment Act 1997, which requires employers and employees to formalise the employment relationship through contracts. An overwhelming 96% of student employers admitted to not having contractualised their working relationship with their domestic worker.

Non-contractualised working relationships have many implications, and casual employment can make domestic workers highly vulnerable to exploitation. This is especially true with regard to Rhodes student employers. The majority of Rhodes students are not permanent Grahamstown residents, often travelling home during vacations. Over half of students do not pay their domestic worker during vacations, and very few put aside money each month for a Christmas bonus. This becomes a particularly serious problem during the two to three months students are away during the summer vacation, and domestic workers become temporarily unemployed. This problem is made worse by the fact that the majority of these domestic workers are not registered with the UIF, which provides short-term relief to workers when they become unemployed.

Aside from contracts, most student employers appear to be adhering to the general provisions of the legislation. Most of the provisions are not unreasonable and are ‘common sense’ labour practices. In 2002, the government determined that a minimum wage was necessary for domestic workers because of vulnerability and a power imbalance between employer and employee. The minimum wage for domestic workers in South Africa is currently about R5,68 per hour, and the average wage students are prepared to pay per day is R60 – R70.

Many students believe that the situation can be improved for both employers and employees through greater awareness and education. “Both employers and employees have an equal duty to acquaint themselves about the requirements of the law,” says Walton. “You do not operate an instrument or drive a car without knowing how, and you surely do not employ someone, especially in the new South Africa, without obtaining the ins and outs,” says Auret.

Some claim the University is obliged to provide this education. The University’s Oppidan Committee is specifically set up to “address the problems and common issues affecting students”, says Gary Muir, ex-Chairperson Oppidan Committee 2006. The new oppidan subwarden system has also been put in place to further strengthen links between the University and the oppidans, and to provide assistance to students wherever possible.

Recommendations from students have included holding workshops, information being handed out during O-Week at registration and information made available on the website. One survey respondent says that “perhaps Rhodes should set up some sort of employment agency for domestic workers for oppidans of the University which would ensure proper payment of these workers, and also allow some sort of recourse route for students who are victims of theft or damage because of their domestic worker.”

The general sentiment of student employers seems to be that their domestic workers are not simply part of the furniture, but rather, part of the family. One survey responded commented, “Although I have communicated on friendly terms with our domestic worker, I have never thought of discussing her rights with her or been aware of them myself”.


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