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Male domestic workers in South Africa; study sheds light on experiences of migrants

A study by sociology lecturer, David du Toit of the University of Johannesburg reveals the history of Black men initially performing domestic work


By David du Toit (Special to BHN)


An estimated 800,000 people work as domestic workers in South Africa. Most are black women from marginalized backgrounds. It’s therefore not surprising that the bulk of the literature about domestic work focuses on females performing cleaning, cooking and care work. What’s missing in debates about domestic workers’ job-related experiences and relationships with their employers is the experiences of men performing domestic work, a job traditionally linked to femininity.


However, paid domestic work in South Africa hasn’t always been dominated by women. In the 1880s when the mining industry was being established in Johannesburg, black men, rather than women, were the preferred servants in white households. Known as houseboys, they cooked, cleaned, nursed and cared for white colonial families.


But over the next decade the landscape of domestic work underwent significant changes. This was due to a few factors, among them:

A small proportion of men still work as domestic workers, however. Some are migrants. Due to South Africa’s relative stability and economic opportunities, there has been an increase in migration from countries like Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Mozambique since apartheid ended in 1994. The migrants come seeking education, employment and improved livelihoods. They rely on friends and family already in South Africa to find jobs.


While African migrant women from poor backgrounds often find work in domestic service or the hospitality sectors, most migrant men work as gardeners, painters or security guards. Some Malawian and Zimbabwean male migrants work as waiters or domestic workers, jobs that are traditionally associated with women.


Exploring unfamiliar territory

As a researcher of domestic work in South Africa, I noticed that few studies had focused on male migrants performing domestic work in South Africa. Consequently, such work is commonly viewed as an employment arrangement involving affluent female employers and black female domestic workers from marginalized backgrounds. The intersections of race, class and gender between employers and domestic workers often lead to unequal power relations and economic exploitation entrenched within the employment relationship.


In this study, it was examined the experiences of migrant male domestic workers in Johannesburg, with the aim of shedding some light on their duties and working conditions.


A male Malawian domestic worker employed by an acquaintance referred me to other male domestic workers in Johannesburg. Interviews were conducted with six male Malawian and four male Zimbabwean domestic workers employed by affluent white employers in Johannesburg. All had been employed for more than five years.

Migrant men’s experiences add a new layer of complexity to the study of domestic work, where complex intersections of class, race and gender occur.


Migrant male domestic workers in South Africa

The study showed that domestic work offered a viable employment path for men.


They faced similar challenges to their female counterparts. These included long working hours, a paternalistic employer-employee dynamic, and a marginalized job status.


The respondents said they had an array of indoor and outdoor responsibilities. Indoors, their tasks encompassed cleaning and tidying their employers’ residences. They also handled laundry and ironing, alongside duties such as grocery shopping and meal preparation.


Outdoors, their responsibilities extended to garden maintenance, swimming pool upkeep, pet waste disposal, cleaning outdoor grilling areas (braais), and sweeping driveways. They were also entrusted with securing the homes and taking care of pets when their employers were away.


The daily life of male live-in domestic workers was much the same as live-in female domestic workers. The working day started at 06:30, preparing breakfast for employers. Once employers had left for work, they cleaned the house, prepared lunch, did laundry and attended to the garden.


The long working day often ended at 20:00 after dinner was prepared for employers. Most weekends were spent on additional piece jobs, working as gardeners or painters for others.


While the homes of employers were opulent, male domestic workers, just like their female counterparts, lived in small rooms in the back yard, hidden away from the employers’ gaze, as other researchers have also found. The one-room accommodation was often equipped with basic furniture, differing little from the squalid living quarters of domestic workers during apartheid.


The men said they considered their wages reasonable. They earned on average between R5,000 (US$260) and R8,000 (US$416) a month. This was much higher than the minimum wage of R4,067 (US$216) for a domestic worker working eight hours a day, five days a week in South Africa. Most said they could engage in wage negotiations, which enabled them to improve their wellbeing and that of their families.


None of the male domestic workers in this study had written employment contracts with their employers, or were members of a trade union, such as the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union. Work contracts need to be renewed every few years, which is costly and time consuming. Job security is precarious.


The recurring issues of domestic work

In South Africa, domestic work continues to be associated with marginalized black individuals, perpetuating a historical and societal imbalance.


Paid domestic work continues to occupy a low-status position. No formal qualifications and little specialized expertise are required. Domestic workers’ contributions to the functioning of households are essential but frequently taken for granted, as other studies have also confirmed.


Despite the legislation, domestic workers work long hours and perform physically demanding work. While male domestic workers in this study could negotiate better working conditions and pay, others might not be successful, and might remain in a precarious working environment.


Job security is not assured, a vulnerability most migrant domestic workers experience.


Practical protection remains constrained. For instance, migrant domestic workers often encounter difficulties when seeking healthcare.


To safeguard this group from exploitation and elevate their overall livelihoods, regulators, enforcement agencies and trade unions must protect and recognize all domestic workers, including migrants, in South Africa.


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