Why we must professionalize the domestic work industry

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The domestic work industry in South Africa has long been fraught with issues around pay and proper legal protection.

There is a dire need to professionalise the industry to ensure fair pay for workers, as well as set rules and regulations for both employees and employers. As the industry currently stands, it is far too unregulated.

There are too many informal employment scenarios, with no contracts in place. Statutory payments like UIF are not being paid, and many employers are not adhering to the law. In some extreme cases, there is exploitation and even abuse of domestic workers.

Much of this comes down to a lack of education on what needs to be done. It is essential that both employers and employees learn, and understand, their rights. And by the same token, both sides must also understand their obligations.

SweepSouth connects homeowners seeking domestic services to independent domestic service providers, giving opportunities to unemployed or underemployed cleaners. Additionally, our platform enables us to collect data with which we can drive education in the industry.

For employers, whether employing through SweepSouth or privately, we want to create a body of knowledge of protocols for the industry. We want to educate people beyond our platform.

On a softer side, our work is also about conscientising people to the daily reality that is lived by domestic workers. We all live very busy lives. It’s so easy not to think about what goes on in someone else’s day.

In a typical scenario, where you have someone coming in to work in your home for a full day, you come back from work as your domestic worker is leaving. You’ve both had a long day. There is little time to consider their life prior to coming to, and leaving your home.  

Many South African domestic workers are mothers and caregivers who wake up in the early hours to get kids ready for school before travelling an hour or two on public transport (which may or may not be working properly). Then, after getting home they are faced with helping kids with homework, cooking, doing washing and cleaning their own home. And then it’s rinse and repeat every day. Little has been done in terms of large scale efforts to further empower and skill domestic workers so that they have access to opportunities beyond cleaning homes and offices.

Our platform is a step towards helping people efficiently find work in the domestic services industry. The majority of domestic workers (over 83%, according to a recent SweepSouth survey) are single breadwinners. Without access to work, they aren’t bringing in income for entire families, and despite the many challenges with the industry and type of work, it is undeniable that this labour force forms a key part of the economy. Providing such opportunities increases the amount of people who are paid, which reduces dependencies on social grants and other types of welfare, and increases the amount of people who are part of the active labour force, a crucial factor in helping to drive employment.  

While actively working is a first step, we believe in giving domestic workers opportunities to earn more and become better skilled. Our platform has taken advantage of the advances in connectivity in South Africa so that a smartphone becomes a tool not only for connecting to friends and family over voice calls, messaging or app, but additionally to access work opportunities and through its use to improve digital literacy. A natural extension of that is to use that very same tool to connect to opportunities to further upskill online through basic MOOCs (massive open online courses) and other channels. With a workforce of over a million people, upskilling even a fraction of our country’s domestic workers with skills such as writing, admin, bookkeeping etc. would have a massively positive effect on their families and societies (through improved education and earnings) and the country’s economy.

Furthermore, having access to work that is contracted, regulated, monitored and provides opportunity for further opportunities goes a good way towards professionalising the domestic work industry in the country.  This will not only give cleaners dignity and pride in knowing that they are recognised as professional service providers, but also charge the industry to pay decent and fair wages and formulate, and enforce, the rights of both employees and employers. It helps to set standards and set a tone around the value of the type of work. Regular payments that are recorded in an industry where a lot of the economic activity takes place in cash and/or under the table, will also help keep records of financial activity and behaviour, and provide access to financial products like appropriate loans and store cards, which are far preferable to loan sharks and payday loans with sky-high interest rates.

Unfortunately, there aren’t great international models as to how it should realistically work, particularly in economies that are challenged with low quality education, slow economic growth and high unemployment rates as is the case with South Africa. It is a globally recognised fact that domestic workers are paid far less than any other type of work in the world.

We cannot look to the rest of the world for guidance. We need to set the standard. The best-case scenario is in countries with decent set minimum wages, enough opportunity for upskilling and personal growth, and external support systems in the form of social and public sector support which help people in other aspects of their lives.  

In the years to come, I’d like to see much more of the same kind of support here. To start, we need a higher minimum wage for domestic work, and the adoption of more flexible models which allow domestic workers the ability to work with multiple households if necessary to make a decent wage, or to decide to dedicate some of their time to studying or upskilling without being penalised. This is something we have been driving, through education and awareness on our platform, ensuring that SweepStars now earn more than double the national minimum wage, and far higher than any average rates paid in South African metropoles.

Aside from addressing the dire pay in the industry, one of the main reasons we started, was because of the sheer size of the industry in South Africa and the resultant positive impact we could have if we were able to positively influence the industry. With over a million registered domestic workers in the country forming part of the industry, the majority of whom are young women, these positive impacts would be far-reaching.

Professionalising the industry sets up a necessary barrier that defines domestic work as a real, necessary job. It creates a record of skills and employment history for workers. It gives them access to more opportunities, and the ability to upskill themselves for their futures. Setting decent minimum rates is one of the most important things that must happen. Dual sided feedback is also important as it manages expectations on both sides. It encourages accountability on the homeowners’ side, which is something previously missing from this industry.  

These are the basic rights afforded to all other professional industries. There is no reason that we, as a country, can’t make the necessary changes to ensure equal rights for all workers.

Aisha Pandor is the CEO and Founder of SweepSouth