Why do the middle classes in South Africa pay their domestic workers such low wages?

A few months after the Hewitts, a white South African family in the capital Pretoria, moved to a black township to live there for a month and blogged about it, we are left to wonder — media hype aside — has anybody economically benefited from this spectacle of empathy? Has it, for example, made any difference for those township residents who commute to middle class suburbs and city centers every day to work in the homes of people like the Hewitt’s? I doubt it.

While some of South Africa’s contemporary (but apartheid-bred) social ills can be ascribed to a lack of political will and resources, the widespread underpayment of domestic workers is not one of them. (In fact, South Africa was one of the first to ratify the Domestic Workers Convention, which went into force earlier this month.)

Instead, it’s an issue of public will and a collective refusal to pay a decent wage that renders the lives of so many hardworking girls and women (many of whom are mothers and care takers) into such an economical challenge. Amongst the wealthy, the middle class, the international students as well as many international professionals and development workers, of whom many (though not everyone) can easily afford to pay more, the refusal to pay their cleaning ladies a decent wage is unrelenting.

Why? Perhaps South Africa’s horrible mathematics scores have something to do with it. Because surely anyone who nails the grade 3 basics of pluses and minus can calculate that R150 (about US$15 or €11) per day minus R20 transportation equals R130 (US$13 or €9,5) about a day for a liberally assumed average of, say, 20 workdays a month does not equal a decent wage. Pretty straightforward math.

Of course, SA is more than its Gini coefficient; not everyone is in the position to be generous. So in the face of an estimated unemployment rate of 25,5%, R150 is better than nothing. But for many who are, the ability to pay more seems utterly irrelevant. Standard rationales: “A cleaning lady only costs 150 rand!”; “Does the lease includes a domestic?”; or “Our maid is looking for more hours and I’m trying to help her find them.”

Why deviate from the convenience of the norm if it’s normalized by everyone around you and if the minimum wage law tells you it’s acceptable? For those outside South Africa, this norm consists of R150 for a full day of work, which usually includes travel expenses and an occasional gift or bonus, depending on the mood du jour.

That’s South Africa right there; where you can be on the board of I don’t know how many township development projects, cheer the symbolism of bridge building, theoretically back the concept of affirmative action and lament the ANC’s lack of political will to take care of its poorest citizens, while finding it totally appropriate to leave 150 rand and a tin of Ricoffi on the kitchen table in exchange for the care and labor that your most personal belongings require.

* The image is from photographer Zanele Muholi’s 2008 project “Massa and Mina(h)”.

Further Reading

Mobilizing in disorder

Post the looting and failed insurrection, what would it mean for the South African left to undertake a populist political strategy? And should it look to South America for inspiration? A long read.