A few months after the Hewitts, a white South African family in the capital Pretoria, moved to a black township to live there for a month and blogged about it, we are left to wonder — media hype aside — has anybody economically benefited from this spectacle of empathy? Has it, for example, made any difference for those township residents who commute to middle class suburbs and city centers every day to work in the homes of people like the Hewitt’s? I doubt it.

While some of South Africa’s contemporary (but apartheid-bred) social ills can be ascribed to a lack of political will and resources, the widespread underpayment of domestic workers is not one of them. (In fact, South Africa was one of the first to ratify the Domestic Workers Convention, which went into force earlier this month.)

Instead, it’s an issue of public will and a collective refusal to pay a decent wage that renders the lives of so many hardworking girls and women (many of whom are mothers and care takers) into such an economical challenge. Amongst the wealthy, the middle class, the international students as well as many international professionals and development workers, of whom many (though not everyone) can easily afford to pay more, the refusal to pay their cleaning ladies a decent wage is unrelenting.

Why? Perhaps South Africa’s horrible mathematics scores have something to do with it. Because surely anyone who nails the grade 3 basics of pluses and minus can calculate that R150 (about US$15 or €11) per day minus R20 transportation equals R130 (US$13 or €9,5) about a day for a liberally assumed average of, say, 20 workdays a month does not equal a decent wage. Pretty straightforward math.

Of course, SA is more than its Gini coefficient; not everyone is in the position to be generous. So in the face of an estimated unemployment rate of 25,5%, R150 is better than nothing. But for many who are, the ability to pay more seems utterly irrelevant. Standard rationales: “A cleaning lady only costs 150 rand!”; “Does the lease includes a domestic?”; or “Our maid is looking for more hours and I’m trying to help her find them.”

Why deviate from the convenience of the norm if it’s normalized by everyone around you and if the minimum wage law tells you it’s acceptable? For those outside South Africa, this norm consists of R150 for a full day of work, which usually includes travel expenses and an occasional gift or bonus, depending on the mood du jour.

That’s South Africa right there; where you can be on the board of I don’t know how many township development projects, cheer the symbolism of bridge building, theoretically back the concept of affirmative action and lament the ANC’s lack of political will to take care of its poorest citizens, while finding it totally appropriate to leave 150 rand and a tin of Ricoffi on the kitchen table in exchange for the care and labor that your most personal belongings require.

* The image is from photographer Zanele Muholi’s 2008 project “Massa and Mina(h)”.

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Maria Hengeveld

Maria Hengeveld, a graduate student in human rights at Columbia University, writes about youth development, feminism, education and the media. Before New York City, she lived for four years in South Africa.

40 thoughts on “Why do the middle classes in South Africa pay their domestic workers such low wages?

  1. I have no doubt I will get knocked for self justification, but here goes: In my neck of the woods (suburban Cape Town) it is the norm as far as I can gauge anecdotally, to compensate domestic workers in ways that far exceed an apparant salary. e.g. in my home, our domestic worker is paid well above min wage, and obviously receives sick pay, holiday pay and an annual bonus equal to a month’s wages. Additionally, I cover all educational expenses for her children (including fees, excusrsions, uniforms and stationery), and her eldest child will join mine at university next year (as will her younger one in due course), again entirely at my expense. I also cover their medical expenses using the same medical practice as our family.
    I would love to know the stats on this kind of ‘hidden’ financial support for domestic workers. Taking the narrow viewpoint of the author you could still argue that I don’t pay a high enough salary, but I believe many employers are trying to address the problem of inequality of opportunity in similar ways by investing in the next generation.

  2. Maybe you should also include research into the people who employ illegal immigrants and pay them R300 a month, because they have no rights, no options and are at the total mercy of employers. For RSA citizens, they at least have the various courts and labour unions to turn to.

  3. Tathu, the point is, while what you and your family do is generous, domestic workers should be in a financial position to do that themselves. If they can’t even pay their medical bills, you not paying them a salary, you’re giving them a stipend. That is NOT good enough.

  4. R150/day x 21 days/month = R3150/month there’s no way I could afford to pay someone that (which is one of the reasons why I don’t have a domestic worker) – I only earn a little more than that. What salaries are you guys earning that your refer to that as an exploitative wage?!

    Possibly it is not that the hypothetical domestic worker is underpaid, but that the SA middle classes are grossly overpaid!

    South Africa is a developing country and by developing country standards R3000/month is a good income for a low-skilled worker.

    The problem in SA is that the middle and wealthy classes feel entitled to earn first world salaries even though our economy can’t afford it. This in turns drives up salary expectations all the way down the ladder hence the strikes and labour unrest.

    Benchmarking domestic worker salaries against inflated middle class salaries confuses the issue: the problem are the overpaid middle and wealthy classes. The problem in SA is that the middle classes earn over R20,000 a month – in a developing country!! No wonder we can’t compete internationally…

    • Dave is absolutely right.
      The real problem is the high cost of living, and its pervasive; everyone is caught in the toxic fog. The dominating ethos is – make as much money as possible, by whatever means, as quickly as possible. And it flows right from the top.
      If you’re poor, tough luck. If you’re not on medical aid, dont get sick, otherwise you’re history.
      Talk about Domestics – what about farm workers. They dont even dream about medical assistance,
      holidays, bonuses; they just drink their lives away.

  5. Thanks for sharing your comments, insights and critiques.
    The topic has been on my mind for over a year. Conscious of the difficulties and risks in raising this issue in a blog post (rather than a journalistic article with interviews and so on), and aware of the risk this could be perceived as pedantic by many, I decided to wait. The Hewitt story presented an opportunity to raise the issue, so we went for it.
    The long wait had one advantage, though. It offered me the opportunity to ground my argument in many more conversations and observations than a year ago. This is by no means scientific evidence, but for the purpose of this blog post I don’t think it had to be.

    While I understand concerns about the limited engagement with broader economic forces and market logic, I chose to treat the domestic space of the home in isolation for a reason. Many political and economic injustices and inequalities are beyond the average middle class person’s control. What motivated me to merely focus on the R150 norm is that, in my mind, the political economy of the household, a personal one, is this rare area in which we do exercise some control.

    The responses I’ve received and number of shares so far suggest to me that I’m not the only one who feels it’s a topic worth discussing. There are different ways to do this and mine is certainly not without errors.

    Two things make me uncomfortable about this unfolding discussion. It indeed lacks the voices of domestic workers themselves. And second, it is –indeed- not a South African-only phenomenon, which my post indeed seems to suggest.

    Again, thanks for the feedback and critiques.

    • Thanks for your response and for being so big to admit some of the flaws in your post. Perhaps your article should instead be titled “why do the middle classes pay their domestic workers such low wages” and not included the racially emotive picture which implicates only white South Africans. I’d encourage you to do some ground level research where you will find that it is not only white people who employ black domestics. This is also a very common practice in black, coloured and Muslim communities where domestics are often paid just as badly. I’d also be interested to hear your take on the relationship between middle class Americans and the Mexican and South-American domestics who suffer maltreatment and abuse and have become the subject of grotesque caricatures in the media.

  6. Economics 101 = supply and demand. Like all emerging markets where the education system does not allow for all to be in the upper 5th percentile (I know that this is statistically impossible) the definition of exploitation becomes moot when survival is utmost and any job at all will suffice.

  7. Although the photo lends itself to stereotyping it is a reality that most domestics in South Africa are black and that they are exploited. My argument is that no matter what the form of employment, no employee should be exploited, If you can’t afford to pay en employee a decent living wage, the emphasis on decent, then perhaps you must resort to doing the work yourself.

    With the continuous downward spiraling of our economy, that picture will definitely change in character within the next few years. We’ll probably have white educated people being employed by blacks.

  8. The monetary system also plays a big part in this problem. It is based on debt (See

    If we had a better financial system in place we wouldn’t have so much disparity and problems like this could be more easily solved.

    Also take a look at, a new Time Banking application. These types of alternative currencies can work well once they get traction.

  9. Sadly this is universal and a simple function of demand and supply. The elephant in the room is do the poor have the right to bring as many babies as they like into the world and ask society to provide for them. Education is the key, but is only a long-term solution.

  10. We are referred to as a multi cultural country (and what a privilege that is! I have lived overseas for a number of years where there is only limited experience of different cultures. The multiculturalism of SA makes us, in general, tolerant, understanding, accepting, flexible… in many ways compared to others, who are not, in general. We are not told of our privilege by the news we are fed and the politics that keeps limiting and controlling ideas in place)

    We also have MULTI LAYERS and we need to accommodate that too. Layers of education, layers of responsibilities, layers of different culture/religion/beliefs, layers of cooperation, layers of willingness, laziness/hard work, work ethic, values…. etc.Seeing we cant change everything NOW to a state of perfection, we have to accept the different layers we have and work with them BENEVOLENTLY!.

    It is said (probably against many peoples beliefs) that SOME countries/cultures fare better by having a “dictator”/leader BUT BUT… the defining element is he/she needs to be benevolent! Not the greedy “powerful” kind we see these days (even in the disguise of democracies). I agree with Tathus approach (Oct1 2013) . It is wise and kind and non greedy. Its a sad fact that MANY people don’t have goals or management skills or forward thinking (about the future of their family’s education, health provision, saving for a home etc… for WHAT EVER, many reasons), so by dividing up the salary of the domestic worker (BTW, in other countries “domestic workers” are called maids, without upset and it sounds much more ladylike than an “industrial worker”) into “wages”, education ,health aid (the basics), and managing some of it him/herself is a very responsible way of taking care of their employee and it definitely protects the domestic from the power sharks out there. Not only that, IN TIME Tathus domestic worker will see the benefit of putting aside some money each month for money or medical aid and see the benefit of saving or spending wisely! This is a great gift that Tathu is giving!! Tathus domestic worker will also see that this is the way to manage ones money/income/labour and the domestic workers SELF ESTEEM and SELF WORTH and SELF VALUE and DREAMS will increase and it will filter to his/her children and soon, a new generation of budding middle class people (IF that is the goal!) will emerge!!

    We are all created to enjoy abundance! We have to just unlock those blocks in the way. Most of us don’t know what goes on out there to the people like domestic workers, in their own/different environments to ours – the blackmail and loan-sharks pressing people into debt where they may not even have a need, to mention a tip of the iceberg – and because of innocence, vulnerability, gullibility, fear or whatever it may be, the lowest income groups are the most vulnerable!! If you ask the average person what a low income person does with their weekly daily or monthly wage, can you guess what the answer is?! This is not useful to any man woman or child! Not many put some of their earnings aside for education or health or even to buy one bag of cement at a time, to eventually fix their house or to build on. Or start a responsible, honest STOKVEL system, And in some instances, if a person is seen to be progressing in their community, by saving a bit each month, slowly fixing their house or growing their small business, then the “tall poppy syndrome” is very commonly their reward! SAD!!

    So, again, “the payment in kind” is sometimes a good, kind option. Its a form of education! In my experience, I feel the biggest criticism comes from those who are not South African /African (whether on paper or at heart) – across the board: any race, creed or gender. Often their criticism doesnt help the situation and least of all those they are trying to promote the most. They base their wishes for others, on their own heritage or opinion and are quick to judge. We are warned of the evils of judging.

    There are issues/layers that need attention, in tandem with the issue of what is seen as paying low wages to domestic helpers such as crime and safety, education and healthcare quality – which should be supplied by the government – I feel if these services are poor, they do not help the low income person a great deal so the problem will be perpetuated ad infinitum!

    Don’t blame it on the middle income group. EVERYONE is entitled to become a middle income person! OR a wealthy person! (if thats the goal) That’s not where the problem lies. Another layer which is perhaps more complex in concept (and hard to accept by some, especially those criticizing) is the BELIEF or limiting belief that each individual has of him/herself!! In many instances, low income people don’t have the idea that they CAN achieve more if they want to or DREAM to! They see themselves as “I am poor” or “I am not worthy” And thats where they will stay! Its a universal law. That’s the secret they are not taught because its more useful to a non-benevolent rulership to have people that are “unthinking” (of more positive goals) so that they can be blindfolded, bribed or manipulated at every turn. There are many great points raised by other comments in this blog! Good work! I believe in the innate good of people (rich, poor, old, young, black, white…..) and also, that given the chance to see themselves differently (their potential!) and change (and be supported in that alone) everyone can achieve greater abundance, peace and happiness.

  11. You apparently don’t understand supply and demand. Lucky for you, pontificating on your soapbox requires no qualifications. Congrats on egesting your meaningless sentences,

  12. you can argue this based on demand and supply, sure. If economics triumph over social responsibility then you win – otherwise, you need to think. Just because everyone around you is doing it doesn’t make it right

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