Big problems for domestic workers in South Africa

 ·27 May 2024

Domestic workers currently earn median wages far below even the National Minimum Wage (NMW) and face the prospect of job losses and rising debt as one of the most vulnerable working classes in South Africa.

According to consumer analytics and research group, Eighty20, nearly one-third of South Africa’s jobs are in elementary occupations.

These approximately 4.8 million workers are deemed vulnerable because they operate in fields that are highly susceptible to economic shocks and are far less likely to be represented by unions or labour organisations.

Among the vulnerable workers in South Africa, domestic workers are even more vulnerable.

“Almost no domestic workers are part of a union despite having endured numerous challenges, including economic instability, recession, and the pandemic, placing them at significant risk as employers seek cost-saving measures through downsizing or job eliminations,” Eighty20 said.

“Their lower skill requirements render them more susceptible to layoffs or workforce reductions.”

In the latest Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS) release, South Africa’s unemployment rate saw a slight uptick, rising to 32.9% from 32.1%. Included in these figures was a loss of around 7,000 domestic worker jobs in the country.

As private South African households have fallen under increased pressure amid the rising cost of living—including months of fuel price hikes, sticky inflation and significant price hikes in necessities like electricity—budgets have had to be cut, and domestic workers are often one of the first “luxuries” to go.

Amid increased household costs, increased administrative burdens, and even increased levels of emigration, domestic workers stand to lose out.

According to Eighty20, domestic workers make up the largest percentage of vulnerable occupations (28%), followed by service workers (17%), clerks (10%), and craft and related trade workers (10%).

Eighty20’s market segmentation, which splits adult South Africans into eight homogenous groups, dubs low-income female workers as the “Mothers of the Nation”.

The Mothers of the Nation segment accounts for approximately 7 million people. These are low-income, typically female grant recipients (40%) who are mainly unemployed or underemployed.

Their average age is 35 years with an average personal income of around R1,000 per month, although their average household income is eight times this figure. If they are employed, it is likely an elementary occupation with most domestic workers in this segment.

Stats SA has recorded 869,000 domestic workers in the country.

Pre-Covid-19, South Africa employed over 1 million domestic workers. Industry reports pointed to around 250,000 domestic workers losing their jobs during the pandemic.

By the end of 2023, only around 125,000 of those jobs had been recovered—a 50% recovery rate.

The latest employment data has further dented this, meaning around 132,000 domestic worker jobs are still lost, and total employment is still around 20% lower than pre-pandemic levels.

Median earnings data from Stats SA shows that domestic workers have the lowest median salaries in the country, coming in at around R2,350 a month. This is less than half the national median of R5,417 a month and below the national minimum wage, which amounts to approximately R4,400 a month.

Sweepsouth’s sixth annual domestic worker survey for 2023 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.

According to Eighty20’s data for the final quarter of 2023, Mothers of the Nation—along with other vulnerable groups—remained at the top of the pile in term of the percentage of consumers who had debts in default.

However, more positively, this number also dropped by the end of the year, leaving some of the country’s most vulnerable workers in better stead.

Read: Warning for households that employ domestic workers in South Africa

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