Despite a slight recovery in domestic worker jobs in South Africa, trouble lies ahead for the sector as rising costs and pressure on households in the country mount.
According to the latest Quarterly Labour Force Survey for Q4 2022, South Africans currently employ around 863,000 domestic workers, adding 38,000 jobs (+4.6%) since the last survey.
Year-on-year, however, there are 86,000 fewer domestic workers employed – a 9% drop since Q4 2021 – and total employment numbers are still significantly lower than pre-Covid levels.
South Africa has historically had around 1 million domestic workers employed in the country, but this took a massive knock in 2020 following the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns.
Around 250,000 domestic workers lost their jobs in the quarter following the lockdown before recovering in subsequent quarters – but never going back to the numbers seen before.
The sector has struggled for almost three tears to get these jobs back, with the latest data pointing to around 140,000 domestic workers still lost to the market.
The continued loss of domestic worker jobs in the country is reflective of the strain households – mainly middle-class households – are under in South Africa. Domestic help is often cited as one of the first expenses cut during times of financial pressure.
The pressure on households that employ domestic workers is expected to ramp up significantly this week and in the months to come as South Africa’s new national minimum wage comes into effect and further price hikes are in the pipeline.
From Wednesday (1 March), employers will be expected to pay a hiked minimum wage of R25.42 per hour, up R2.23 or 9.6% from R23.19.
The new minimum wage means domestic workers taking home the lowest possible wage in South Africa should see a 9.6% pay hike. Calculated at 8 hours a day, the monthly wage for domestic workers (160 hours a month) should increase from around R3,700 to R4,100 a month – an increase of R400.
According to the Department of Employment and Labour, however, most jobs earning the minimum wage will see their wages increase to R1,144 a week (45 hours) or R4,957 a month (195 hours).
Notably, the increase to the minimum wage came in higher than initially expected and is higher than the average salary increase expected in the country – estimated at around 6.1%, if an increase is on the cards at all.
When the department started consultations on the increase, it was planning for a hike of around 8%, slightly ahead of CPI, which has been sitting above 7% for the past few months, only dropping to 6.9% in January.
CPI is expected to average between 5% and 6% in 2023.
Despite this, research conducted by SouthSweep in 2022 noted that domestic workers earn below minimum wage. Salary data from SweepSouth in August 2022 showed that the average worker takes home just R2,997 per month – far below the minimum required.
More trouble to come
The pressure on households that employ domestic workers and the domestic workers themselves is also exacerbated by rising costs that all South Africans are forced to bear.
From 1 April 2023, power utility Eskom will be hiking electricity prices by 18.7% for direct customers, which municipalities will feed through to households with a likely bigger hike from 1 July.
In addition, fuel prices from 1 March will also be higher, impacting both personal vehicle costs and public transport costs.
The latest data from the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice & Dignity group (PMBEJD) also shows that food prices are continuing their climb, adding to the stresses facing households.
The group’s nutritional food basket shows a 13.1% increase in prices year-on-year, reflecting official inflation data from Stats SA, which showed that food inflation has climbed to 13.4% – the highest point in 14 years.