Huge blow for domestic workers in South Africa

 ·16 May 2023

Domestic worker jobs in South Africa remain under severe strain, with tens of thousands of workers losing their jobs in the first three months of the year.

According to the latest Quarterly Labour Force Survey from StatsSA for the first quarter of 2023, South Africans currently employ around 797,000 domestic workers, with 67,000 jobs lost in the sector since the last survey.

While the first quarter of the year has historically shown a downswing in domestic worker employment, Q1 2023 showed a severe 7.7% decline, taking job numbers to the worst level since early 2020 with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Year-on-year numbers are also lower, with the latest data showing a drop of 1.4% from the first quarter of 2022, with 11,000 fewer domestic workers employed. This is particularly significant in the context of Q1 2022 being a quarter when South Africa was still in a Covid-19 lockdown.

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 years to get these jobs back, with the latest data pointing to around 200,000 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.

Households in South Africa have faced increased financial burdens in 2023 due to the prevailing economy, which has been beset by stubbornly high inflation, near-permanent load shedding and rising interest rates.

The environment for domestic workers, meanwhile, has gradually become more favourable in terms of rights, protections and guaranteed pay – however, this may have come at the cost of suitability for many households.

Most notably, along with other minimum wage earners, domestic workers were given an above-inflation wage hike from 1 March 2023, when a 9.6% increase to the minimum wage was affected.

Currently, employers will be expected to pay a hiked minimum wage of R25.42 per hour, up R2.23 or 9.6% from R23.19.

Calculated at eight hours a day, the monthly wage for domestic workers (160 hours a month) should have increased from around R3,700 to R4,100 a month – an increase of R400.

In addition to this, the National Minimum Wage Commission has now explicitly stated that all future wage hikes will also be above inflation to ensure that earnings grow in real terms.

Many have argued that the minimum wage and its annual increases will negatively impact the job market. The Department of Employment and Labour has denied this, however, saying recently that it has not seen any negative impact on jobs that can be attributed directly to the minimum wage.

Aside from the rising costs of employing domestic workers, recent legal changes have also made it more challenging for employers on an administrative level.

Amendments to the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act were assented to by President Cyril Ramaphosa on 6 April.

Through the changes, domestic workers and their employers have new rules to follow in South Africa relating to compensation for injuries or diseases stemming from a place of work.

Before the changes, domestic workers were not entitled to benefits such as compensation for work-related injuries or illnesses.

Through the new Act, the Compensation Fund will start accepting claims from domestic workers and their dependents for injuries or deaths resulting from work-related accidents.

The Act also identifies the “main employer” of a domestic worker and holds them accountable for any workplace injuries sustained by the employee. Additionally, employers and employees of domestic workers will be required to contribute to the Unemployment Insurance Fund.

While these changes are undoubtedly positive for domestic workers and are clear for employers who employ said workers full-time, they complicate issues for households who employ domestic workers on a part-time basis, or for domestic workers who ‘freelance’ to the extent that they work or several households in any given week.

Read: Alarm bells over minimum wage in South Africa

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