Trouble for domestic workers in South Africa

 ·14 Nov 2023

The latest employment data from Stats SA shows that South Africa has slowly managed to crawl out of the hole left by the Covid-19 pandemic, with the total number of employed persons in the country now higher than just before the crisis hit.

However, while employment numbers are up – and the unemployment rate down – the reality for domestic workers is that the sector is still over 150,000 jobs shy of recovery, and it may never catch up.

According to the latest stats, the country recorded its eighth consecutive quarter of employment increases, adding 399,000 people to the employed.

The number of employed persons in the country has hit 16.7 million, which is higher than the 16.4 million recorded before the Covid-19 pandemic devastated the country.

The survey showed a slight improvement in the number of domestic workers employed in the country, with households and businesses now employing 860,000 workers, up by 16,000 from 844,000 in the second quarter of the year.

Year-on-year, 34,000 more domestic workers were employed – a gain of 4.1%.

The good news is that the country has recovered 63,000 domestic worker jobs in 2023. However, this is still 150,000 short of the over 1 million domestic workers who were employed before Covid-19.

Industry reports pointed to around 250,000 domestic workers losing their jobs during Covid. As of the third quarter of the year, only 100,000 of those jobs have been recovered.

Warning for jobs going forward

Domestic worker jobs are inextricably tied to the economic prospects for private households and the performance of the wider economy in South Africa.

When exceptionally tough economic times hit – as has been the case for the last three or four years – households clamp down and tighten their belts, and luxuries like domestic help are often some of the first expenses to go.

In this context, the prospects for domestic workers in South Africa look dim.

According to economists at Nedbank, while the improvement in unemployment levels is welcomed, it comes with the caveat that the path forward is far more uncertain.

“So far, much of the employment recovery has been driven by normalisation in underlying economic activity in those industries heavily affected by the restrictions imposed during the pandemic.

“With employment back to pre-pandemic levels, job creation will now be driven by current and expected economic conditions,” the group said.

Unfortunately for South Africa, the current and expected economic conditions are not positive or primed for rapid job creation.

“The obstacles to faster economic growth remain considerable. While electricity supply improved over the past three months, the underlying shortage have not been eliminated and therefore load-shedding continues, and power supply remains vulnerable to potential shocks and mishaps.

“Rail and port bottlenecks have worsened, weighing on domestic trade, mining, and manufacturing. The cost associated with high levels of crime and corruption also continues to mount,” Nedbank said.

“On top of these binding constraints, private firms are increasingly forced to operate in failing municipalities, where the quality of public services are rapidly deteriorating, leaving the private sector with little choice but to seek alternatives.”

Private households also suffer these same and wider effects – and as the main employers of domestic workers, this pressure is evident in the gap between domestic worker employment pre-pandemic and now.

“The unemployment rate will likely remain structurally high over the medium term. A fast reduction in the unemployment rate can only be achieved through robust economic growth, which ultimately requires faster implementation of critical structural reforms,” Nedbank said.

Read: Unemployment rate drops as South Africa finally crawls out of the Covid slump

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