Ina Opperman
Business Journalist
4 minute read
12 Oct 2020
2:34 pm

‘New normal’ for domestic workers: joblessness and debt

Ina Opperman

Despite increased financial responsibility, domestic workers’ earnings dropped from 63% earning more than R2500 before the pandemic hit, to 74% earning less than R2500 currently.

Since lockdown was eased to level 1 most people in the country would say life is returning to normal, but this is not the case for domestic workers.

Although many have returned to work, many others are still unemployed and most are struggling to pay their debts, as many were not paid during the pandemic.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on domestic workers is evident in the results of the third annual SweepSouth Report on Pay and Working Conditions for Domestic Work in South Africa. Domestic work ensures total employment for 6% of the labour force and about 15% of women in the country.

The survey was conducted between 7 June and 21 August 2020.

Comments from some of the almost 5 000 respondents, of which 97% were women, are heartbreaking.

“It has put me in debt, hunger, and my mental health has gone down because of stress about how l will survive with my kids, with no food and a place to stay. My kids haven’t been going to school and this also affects them and how or when l will recover from debts l don’t know,” said one of them.

Another participant said she supports six children and now that they are staying at home during the day and she is not working, she cannot afford food from morning until evening. She says thankfully, the COVID-19 grant has helped.

“I had a part-time job three days a week and I lost it because of Covid-19, and at least the grant increase really helped, but the food prices increased so much during lockdown that we ended up spending all of it on food,” another participant said.

While some agreed that government made a good decision to shut down the country, they are worried because their landlords are chasing them out of their homes because they could not pay rent.

It is also clear that the struggle goes on for many.

“On the 25th of March I was starting TB treatment, but then doctors closed and I got very sick with no food, no support and no TB grant. I am really struggling up until now.”

Increase in cost of living

The survey showed a significant increase in the cost of living for domestic workers during the pandemic, with the total average monthly basic expenses increasing by 34% to R4 225 per month.

The most notable increases were for food, which increased by 52% and school fees that increased by 65%, most likely as a result of inflation and an increase in the number of sole breadwinners by 13%. Only data and airtime decreased by 36%.

Financial dependency

Financial dependency increased for all respondents.

Domestic workers with five financial dependents increased to 17% (12% in 2019) and those with six or more to 20% (14% in 2019). This accompanied by decreasing financial security, with a substantial decrease in the number of respondents with a funeral plan, medical aid and making stokvel contributions.

SweepSouth’s previous report showed that 79% of domestic workers are sole breadwinners and 71% are single mothers with, on average, three dependents.

Increased underemployment

An increase in ‘underemployment’ was also noted in the survey, with 80% of respondents reporting that they worked fewer than 8 hours per day (73% in 2019), severely affecting spending.

A total of 85% of respondents said they were forced to reduce spending, with the majority (75%) reducing their food budget.

Unable to pay rent

Their decreased income due to the pandemic meant that 69% could not afford to pay their rent. Most (57%) reported they will have to catch up rental payments.

Increased debt with no end in sight

Respondents indicated that their debt situation has worsened, with 46% increasing their debt during lockdown and 42% saying they do not have an end in sight for when they could repay their debt.

Scant support for foreign workers

While 75% of the respondents could claim some sort of governmental support during the lockdown, only 4% of foreign workers received help from government. Some were also supported by their clients (35%), but the support from NPOs was limited (8%).

Other impacts

  • Only 4% were diagnosed with Covid-19 and none faced serious complications. However, 29% reported other knock-on effects for their physical health and a deeply concerning 57% reported that the lockdown influenced their mental health.
  • Respondents said getting back to work (33%) is their greatest need at the moment, followed by rental assistance (30%) and food parcels (24%).


The report contains these recommendations:

  • Urgent food relief for domestic workers and their families.
  • Immediate return to work for domestic workers.
  • Rental assistance for workers facing eviction.
  • Mental health interventions to assist with the increased social, psychological and psychiatric effects of the lockdown on struggling families.
  • Policy reform to include foreign workers in the social welfare system and an expansion of UIF to cover all workers in South Africa.

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