Picture: 123RF/RAW PIXEL
Picture: 123RF/RAW PIXEL

In the early 1650s, a young Khoi girl named Krotoa was taken into servitude by Jan van Riebeeck. Krotoa was the forerunner to millions of black women who have worked in white households and on white farms in the centuries since, separated from their own children and supporting, as breadwinners, hundreds of thousands of households across Southern Africa.

We often forget that the intertwined institutions of farm work and domestic work have their origins in the enslavement of indigenous people. During our country’s colonisation, and subsequently during apartheid’s cheap-wage labour regime, black women toiled under abusive conditions in white households and on white farms.

After decades of democracy, the commercial agriculture and domestic work sectors have yet to shake off their colonial and apartheid legacies. Farm workers and domestic workers are widely recognised as two of the most vulnerable occupational groups in the country. Despite attempts by the government to provide legal protections, little has changed for many farm and domestic workers who work in intolerable conditions with low wages and no formal terms of employment.

They endure long working hours; racist paternalism from employers; verbal, physical and sexual abuse; and constant threats of dismissal. Furthermore, farm dwellers and “live-in” domestic workers live under precarious circumstances on someone else’s property, as their residence is tied to their employment.

According to the Women on Farms Project, women who live and work on farms face particular challenges: often they are seen as an extension of male farm workers; their contracts are in their husband’s or male partners’ names; their labour is valued less than that of men, they are therefore paid less than their male counterparts for the same work; and, in general, are denied opportunities to develop themselves.

Instead of further extending labour protections to the most vulnerable worker groups in the country, the revised [National Minimum Wage] act actually reinforces their vulnerability

In 2017, Women on Farms research showed that women farm workers were increasingly relegated to seasonal work, not knowing from week to week if they would continue to be employed. Seventy-five percent of those interviewed were paid less than the minimum wage; and the vast majority (70%) were working without a contract, had no access to toilet facilities in the workplace, and despite exposure to toxic pesticides, were not provided with protective clothing. The report was aptly titled, “The farmer does not recognise who makes him rich.”

The domestic work and commercial agricultural sectors make up the largest portion of SA’s working poor. According to the National Minimum Wage Research Initiative, in 2014, 90% of agricultural workers and 95% of domestic workers were living below the “working-poor line” — the minimum needed to keep themselves and their families out of poverty — then R4,125 per month. It was surprising, then, when in January 2019 the National Minimum Wage Act excluded these very groups of workers from the full minimum wage of R20 per hour.

Under the act, farm workers, domestic workers, and those employed in the expanded public works programme (EPWP) earn reduced wages of R18, R15 and R11 per hour, respectively. Instead of further extending labour protections to the most vulnerable worker groups in the country, the revised act actually reinforces their vulnerability.

Apartheid-based poverty trap

Even though it would be less discriminatory for farm workers and domestic workers to be paid the new minimum wage of R20 an hour, this wage is not enough for workers or their families to have an acceptable standard of living.

The Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Group’s monthly “Household Affordability Survey” found that in June 2019, it cost R2,422.78 to feed a household of four a basic nutritious diet. If a worker earns a total of R3,500 in a month (approximately 44 hours a week at R20 an hour), then 70% of their monthly income would be spent solely on food. This leaves just more than R1,000 for essentials such as rent, school fees, healthcare and transport.

Furthermore, because housing for the poor tends to be located far away from economic opportunities (another legacy of apartheid we have yet to overcome), this creates a poverty trap in which poor people are either confined to residence in areas least likely to provide them with the opportunity to get a job, or spend the vast majority of their wages on transport.

Thembinkosi Msipha, a domestic worker from Johannesburg, says that, “these days most of the landlords charge R1,500 to R2,500 per room. Transport mostly is around R1,000 [or more] and [it’s the same with] groceries. It's worse if you are a single mom cause you need to take care of your kids … Groceries, you have to buy [are] only needs — no wants”. A minimum wage of R20 an hour is a poverty wage; it is simply not enough to afford workers a decent standard of living. 

The One Wage Campaign [calls] for the elimination of employer exemptions to the minimum wage and the inclusion of farm workers, domestic workers and EPWP employees in the R20 per hour minimum wage

Tired of exceedingly low wages and exploitative working conditions, SA’s workers are demanding a living wage. The struggle for a living wage is global: all over the world, workers are fighting for what the International Labour Organisation (ILO) defines as “the amount necessary to meet the reasonable needs or basic needs of an unskilled labourer with a family of average size”.

This Women’s Month, a coalition of civil society organisations and labour unions introduced the One Wage Campaign, calling for the elimination of employer exemptions to the minimum wage and the inclusion of farm workers, domestic workers and EPWP employees in the R20 per hour minimum wage. Over the coming months, the campaign will host events for workers and for the public in Johannesburg and Cape Town, and engage the National Minimum Wage Commission and other relevant bodies in their quest to amend the National Minimum Wage Act to give all workers the right to the full minimum wage.

Furthermore, the campaign, acknowledging that R20 per hour is insufficient for a decent standard of living for workers, is fighting ultimately for a living wage for all workers in SA.

Raising the minimum wage for farm workers and domestic workers will improve the lives of millions of South Africans whose livelihoods depend on what have been referred to as “apartheid institutions”. Providing farm workers and domestic workers, along with other workers, a living wage, will loosen the reins of their apartheid legacies, and might finally break the cycle of generational poverty associated with this work.

• Tekie is with Izwi Domestic Workers Alliance and the One Wage Campaign; and Khunou is with the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of SA.