Cape Town – Mbokazi Songelwa, 52, has been a cleaner for so long that she says she can’t remember when she first started.
Like many South African domestic workers, she holds various part-time jobs for a number of employers. Currently, she works about six days a month, for between six and eight hours each day, to support the two granddaughters she’s raising. But every day she works, it costs her 46 rand ($3.87) for the round-trip taxi ride from Phillipi, one of the larger townships in Cape Town, to her jobs in the city center.
“Most of the ladies who clean like me don’t have husbands. They are working for themselves to support their families,” Songelwa says. “Where we live, we must buy electricity, pay for groceries, and transport. I also have two funeral cover policies, so that if I die the grandchildren and my family do not have to get into debt. When it is month’s end I become stressed. Everyone pays at the end of the month, and in two days, my money is finished.”
The fact that Songelwa has work at all puts her in a better position than many women in South Africa. The country, which has a population of 56.52 million, faces high unemployment levels, with an expanded unemployment rate of 36.8 percent, a figure that includes job seekers who have stopped looking for work.
Women are more likely than men to be unemployed. The gap between rich and poor has continued to grow over the past two decades, with both the World Bank and the United Nations Human Development Index ranking South Africa as the most unequal country in the world in terms of income in 2017.
With the aim of addressing this inequality, in November 2017 the Department of Labour announced that the Cabinet had approved a new Minimum Wage Bill. The draft legislation marks the first time South Africa has ever mandated a universal minimum wage, guaranteeing workers a wage of at least 20 rand per hour (about $1.66) or a monthly income of around 3,500 rand ($290) for the average 40-hour workweek.
While many in South Africa hail the legislation as progress in alleviating poverty, women’s rights advocates say it doesn’t go far enough to help those who need it most. In its current form, the bill contains exceptions for certain kinds of workers, including domestic workers – the vast majority of whom are women.
The bill, which is set to come into effect on May 1, states that domestic workers will be guaranteed a lower wage of 15 rand per hour ($1.24).
The government says the reason for setting the new minimum wage for domestic workers at 25 percent less than other jobs is to protect people in domestic work. In a report on the draft bill , the Treasury states the domestic work sector is “very vulnerable to disemployment and [is] often poorly organized,” so it is necessary to ease employers in and give them at least a year before they have to start paying the full minimum wage.
Domestic Workers Left Behind
As of September 2017, more than 1 million women were employed in private households, with 992,000 reporting their occupation as “domestic worker.” The number of male domestic workers was 52,000.
The aim is to bring all wages to the full minimum by 2020, but campaigners say that is too long to wait. In its current form, the draft bill will only exacerbate South Africa’s income inequality, they say.
“Because of poverty, women are already often compelled into low-wage and subsistence activities in order to provide access to housing and food security to their families,” says Charlene May, an attorney working with the fair work conditions program at the Women’s Legal Centre.
The reality, May says, is the majority of female domestic workers in South Africa, who are usually employed to clean a household as an individual contractor, will not be covered by the new bill. According to the country’s Basic Conditions of Employment Act passed two decades earlier, the job title “domestic worker” applies to anyone “who in any manner assists in carrying on or conducting the business of an employer.”
But the new bill has a narrower definition of a domestic worker, specifically referencing gardeners, drivers and caregivers. The worry, say rights advocates, is that anyone who falls outside that definition may not be covered by the new wage legislation at all.
“The current minimum wage bill does not include workers employed as individual contractors in private households to clean them, only those domestic workers employed or supplied by employment services,” May says.
She notes it also doesn’t cover the cleaning and other domestic jobs that women perform in their own homes, a type of work that the Women’s Legal Centre has long been pushing to be recognized with a salary.
Since 2002, the minimum pay for domestic workers has been dictated by a Sectoral Determination for Domestic Workers, which is adjusted every year and varies depending on the number of hours worked and where the job is carried out. This year, the required pay for domestic work ranges from 11.89 rand ($0.99) to 15.28 rand ($1.27) per hour. When the new law kicks in in May, that will become the flat rate of 15 rand per hour, regardless of the job’s location.
The draft bill must still go through parliament before it is approved, and when the opportunity arises, the Women’s Legal Center says it will make submissions to ensure that women workers, including domestic workers, are not disadvantaged by the new law.
As rights advocates fight to bring domestic worker wages in line with everyone else’s, for Songelwa the introduction of a minimum wage threatens to put her under even more financial strain, not less. Right now, her hourly pay is more than the government’s proposed minimum. Once the new law goes into effect, she worries that new employers will opt to pay her the lowest salary that the law demands.
“I earn more than the minimum wage per hour, but I’m still struggling,” Songelwa says.
“If people were paying me that wage … what would I do? You can’t dodge electricity, food or funeral cover. You don’t want people to talk badly about you when you die.”