Business / Business News

Ina Opperman
Business Journalist
4 minute read
28 Jun 2021
3:58 pm

Domestic workers still struggle to afford daily life – survey

Ina Opperman

The impact of the pandemic on poor people is also evident in the lives of domestic workers. Their salaries are still below the minimum living wage and they are drowning in debt.

Image: iStock

According to the 2021 SweepSouth Domestic Worker Annual Report, the pandemic’s economic fallout has had a devastating effect on domestic workers’ livelihoods. While living costs are down, it is likely due to them sacrificing variable-cost items, such as food, to stretch their earnings, which strongly suggests a falling quality of life.

Domestic workers earn on average R2 536 per month, while their monthly living costs amount to R2 890, which means that they are forced to take on debt or reduce spending on vital items to make ends meet every month.

This year’s report reflects on the impact of the pandemic a year later and looked at the usual indicators of pay and working conditions, while also diving deeper into particular aspects highlighted in last year’s report, such spiralling debt and the socio-economic cost of the pandemic.

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Last year’s report was more focussed on the early impact of the pandemic on the livelihoods and health of domestic workers. A total of 7 000 respondents participated and the data was reverse-billed to ensure respondents did not need mobile data to complete the survey.
The majority of respondents were females between the age of 25 and 44 (79%), with a slight increase in the number of male respondents in the same age bracket. This year researchers also noted a remarkable increase in the number of Zimbabwean respondents.

Domestic worker families

The survey uncovered an encouraging sign of economic recovery with the average number of financial dependents and main breadwinners decreasing to 2019 levels. There has also been a decrease in the number of single parents, but this could be due to the question in this year’s survey being rephrased to refer to “single caregiver” households rather than “single parents”.

Families of domestic workers have on average 4.3 people in the house, with 2.2 own children and four dependants. 64% of the respondents are single parents and 79% are the main breadwinners.

Domestic worker earnings

The survey showed that domestic workers’ average earnings decreased from last year and fall below the minimum wage increase of 1 March 2021. SweepSouth ascribes this to increased income pressure on employers, as well as lower-paid domestic workers returning to work.
Recent data shows that domestic worker earnings still fall far below a living wage as well. SweepSouth says it has advocated for better pay for domestic workers, but was challenged by a slow economy and a lack of willingness and ability to pay more, leading to a decrease in average earnings.

The average domestic worker earnings per month were R2 536, while their monthly living costs are R2 890.

Cost of living

According to the data the cost of living decreased considerably in 2021, mainly due to lower food and housing costs, probably caused by a reduction in the number of financial dependants and the fact that school children could eat a meal at school again.

ALSO READ: Domestic workers’ ‘slave wages’ pose malnutrition risk

Domestic workers have spent 42% less on food in the past year, which indicates that their households are sacrificing variable-cost items such as food to stretch their earnings. Nutritional deprivation can have serious effects on an individual’s well-being and can have a long-term impact.

They spent 11% more on data and airtime and 33% more on school fees, but 31% less on rent, 1% less on transport, 17% less on electricity. Domestic workers could not cover their basic expenses, showing a deficit when comparing earnings to basic costs, forcing them to take on debt or reduce spending on vital items.


The SweepSouth data shows that almost one in five domestic workers participate in a stokvel, but less than one in 10 reported have any personal savings or pension, leaving households vulnerable to any financial shocks. Very few respondents have private medical aid or medical insurance and have to rely on healthcare provided by government to take care of their physical and mental health.

Only 8% has savings or a pension, while 78% indicated they did not make enough money to save, only 2% had medical aid and 49% had a funeral plan.

ALSO READ: New normal’ for domestic workers: joblessness and debt


Domestic workers’ debt levels are concerning, with almost one in two feeling that their repayment situation is “hopeless”. More than half owe money to a shop or store, which shows the high level of easy credit and predatory lending practices.


A total of 23% of the respondents were subjected to verbal abuse, 4% to physical abuse and 2% to sexual abuse. Potentially because protected by better laws, SA domestic workers least likely to have experienced abuse in the workplace. Foreign domestic workers were more likely to be verbally or physically abused.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) said the report makes for a depressing read and paints a picture of exploitation. “It helps to shed light on areas where we have managed to improve the lives of domestic workers and equally where we have failed to do so as a nation since 1994.”

According to Cosatu, the pandemic has also shown that many domestic workers are not registered for Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) because only about 40 000 received UIF Covid TERS, out of about 800 000 domestic workers employed in South Africa. “This is something that government, employers and unions need to deal with.”