In South Africa, approximately one million people, mostly black women from marginalised backgrounds, are employed as domestic workers by the middle class.
Some are employed as full-time domestic workers and live on the premises of their employers, usually in backyard rooms. For live-in domestic workers, their work and personal lives are often blurred. They lack freedom and independence, as they are required to devote most of their time to the needs of employers.
Others are employed as full-time domestic workers but live elsewhere. They typically rely not only on the wages of their employers but also their goodwill in times of need. Live-out domestic workers’ output and performance continue to be controlled by their employers. They have little autonomy over workloads and have the additional burden of being pressed for time by completing duties before returning home.
A large proportion of domestic workers are also employed part-time or temporarily, where they work on various time and wage schedules for different employers. This makes for economic insecurity and instability.
In recent years, outsourced domestic cleaning services have increased, changing the dynamics of paid domestic work.
The outsourcing of domestic work and its impact on domestic workers has not been well researched in the South African context. To understand this development, I did my Masters and PhD studies on the growth of outsourced domestic cleaning services. The aim was to gain a better understanding of how outsourced domestic cleaning service firms operate, how it changes domestic work and what the costs for domestic workers are.
My findings show that outsourced domestic cleaning service firms contribute to the race, class and gender stereotypes of domestic work. Outsourcing has not been enough to elevate the status of this occupation, or to improve the working conditions of domestic workers.
The problem with paid domestic work
Despite various employment arrangements, the relationship between employers and domestic workers is characteristically personal and unequal. Where domestic workers are considered as “part of the family”, employers have the power to provide or withdraw support as they please. Employers may provide gifts, kindness and care to elicit harder work and favours from domestic workers, which is often a tension-filled part of the employment relationship.
The second issue is the dehumanised treatment of domestic workers. Employers often call their domestic workers by derogatory names but expect to be addressed formally and respectfully. Some employers treat their domestic workers as child-like, reinforcing their inferiority.
Thirdly, the demeaning working conditions contribute to the devaluation of domestic work. The lack of employment contracts, poor wages and little social security reinforce the race, class and gender inequalities of this occupation. In essence, personalism is an issue and adds to the exploitative conditions of domestic work.
In the case of outsourced services, the main feature of domestic cleaning service firms is the transformation of a personal bipartite employer-domestic worker relationship, with all its dependencies, into a tripartite employment relationship between a client (former employer), a domestic worker and a manager or franchise owner. Contact and dependency between domestic workers and clients are reduced, and interaction remains focused on work duties. Clients pay a fee for the cleaning session and have no further responsibilities towards domestic workers. Managers perform the emotional labour by (it’s assumed) taking care of the well-being of domestic workers.
Another feature is that workload, duties and working hours are controlled to formalise domestic work. Domestic cleaning services attempt to professionalise the services provided. They often use checklists for cleaning duties, methods and cleaning products. Some domestic workers are accompanied by a supervisor to monitor services.
Thirdly, cleaning is not only rendered professionally on a physical level but also an emotional and aesthetic level. Domestic workers are required to be friendly and professional when in contact with clients. Domestic workers are mostly dressed in neat uniforms and transported in the firm’s vehicles.
By emphasising the necessity to professionalise domestic work, domestic cleaning service firms portray themselves as providing experts in the field of domestic work. In doing so, domestic workers benefit from a perceived elevated status and supposedly better working conditions.
But what are the costs for domestic workers employed through these domestic service firms?
First, domestic workers have little influence on the power dynamics of the employment relationship. In a bureaucratic, rationally organised system, domestic workers lack agency and control over the work process. They have to follow instructions on how to clean and when, and they have to engage in emotional labour by providing friendly and professional services to clients.
Second, the division of labour within teams increases supervision and control by team leaders, clients or managers of firms. Comparing workers and teams to each other, and classifying them according to skill, speed and feedback from clients, breaks down the agency of domestic workers further.
Third, domestic work is depersonalised to such an extent that clients do not recognise domestic workers. They do not know them or want to know anything about their personal life. Contact between clients and domestic workers is stripped to the bare minimum – they come in to clean as quickly and efficiently as possible. They become nameless bodies that clean homes.
Fourth, domestic workers often lack the respect and dignity from their managers expected in a professional work environment. Many domestic workers are employed on a part-time basis, reinforcing the lack of job security and stability. They are paid poorly and receive few or no service benefits. Domestic workers clean under a new set of rules and they are disciplined and punished by different authorities (such as clients, supervisors, managers and franchise owners).
Hence, the shift from personal employment of a domestic worker to an outsourced anonymised team of cleaners suggests that South Africa may be heading towards a society where paid domestic work is disposable, dehumanised and temporary. To use outsourced domestic cleaning services is to avoid the duties and responsibilities of the middle class, to evade dealing with issues of poverty and to devalue paid domestic work in the process.
The country needs to rethink the practice of outsourcing as it seems that domestic workers continue to be neglected. Even under the practice of “professional” domestic cleaning services, domestic workers are undervalued in South African society.