Double-blow for domestic workers in South Africa – as the middle class calls it quits

 ·31 Jul 2023

New data published by SweepSouth through News24 shows that domestic workers in the country are losing jobs as more households pack their bags to leave South Africa – and those who remain get saddled with more debt amid the rising cost of living.

Sweepsouth compiled its sixth annual domestic worker survey (2023), outlining trends in how personal employees get paid in the country and how their lives have been impacted by the various economic crises hitting South African households.

The survey showed that domestic workers in the country still earn, on average, much lower than the National Minimum Wage, with female domestic workers at R2,989 per month and male domestic workers at R2,812.

This is up only slightly from R2,939 and R2,797 recorded in 2022 (up 1.7% and 0.5%, respectively).

As of March 2023, the National Minimum Wage increased by 9.6% from R23.19 per hour to R25.42 per hour – equating to roughly R4,270 per month. The average domestic worker is earning 30% less than this.

This puts domestic workers in a seriously troubled demographic for financial health, with recent industry information from Eighty20 pointing to this population group being in trouble with debt.

Domestic workers reported spending just R700 less than what they earned, leaving no room for medical aid, insurance, and many other necessities each month.

However, another growing crisis for domestic workers in the country comes from heavy job losses in the sector, Sweepsouth said – with most losses being driven by employers emigrating.

The group noted that 60% of the recorded job losses in the survey were due to emigration.

This is supported by wider industry and official jobs data from Statistics South Africa.

In the most recent Quarterly Labour Force Survey from Stats SA 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.

Meanwhile, data from the property sector shows that more middle and higher-income households in South Africa are being sold, with owners referencing emigration as their reason for selling.

FNB’s Estate Agency Survey Q2 2023 showed that for sellers who earn between R1.6 million and R2.6 million, 10.9% said that they were selling to emigrate.

This is even higher for the R2.6 million to R3.6 million income bracket, where 19.0% said they were selling to emigrate. For those in the highest income bracket – over R3.6 million – emigration was the motivation for 16.1% of sales.

Adding to pressure on domestic worker jobs in South Africa is the rising cost of living generally, which is forcing many households in the country to downscale and cut costs where they can.

Several household surveys have flagged domestic workers as being one of the first things to get cut when middle class households look to save money, as their services are often seen as a luxury.

This has been exacerbated by recent changes to the country’s laws moving to formalise domestic work and enable more rights for the employees – such as UIF protection and access to the Compensation Fund for workplace injury.

While this has been a very positive development for the workers themselves, the added administrative burden placed on employers – requiring registration and payments to said funds – has pushed some to end the services instead.

Read: Crisis for domestic workers in South Africa

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