Domestic worker. Picture: BAFANA MAHLANGU
Domestic worker. Picture: BAFANA MAHLANGU

Doing the rounds on social media is a story about how Marilyn Monroe helped Ella Fitzgerald get a gig at one of Hollywood's hottest music venues in the '50s. Under a striking black-and-white photograph of the pair is the caption: "Did you know that when Ella Fitzgerald couldn't get booked by clubs because she was black, Marilyn Monroe offered to come to the nightclub every night and sit in the front row if they let Ella sing? That's how you use your privilege for good."

According to a recent article published by 247 News Around the World, the reluctance to book Fitzgerald at the Mocambo club had less to do with her being African-American and more to do with the club owner's view that she wasn't glamorous enough.

Whatever the reason for his prejudice, he eventually gave Fitzgerald the career-catapulting gig thanks to Monroe.

Indeed, privilege should be used for good and it often costs the privileged person nothing.

Over the past decade, the worst cases of consumer abuse that I've covered were reported by the employers of domestic workers. People with economic power using it for good.

In one case, a domestic worker had lost R77,000 - her life's savings - after she signed surety for her daughter's friend to get a loan. The 62-year-old woman, who was semiliterate, had been misled by the credit provider that there was no risk of her losing her nest egg.

The cession she signed entitled the credit provider to extend further loans to the debtor without notifying her and to sell her investment at any time without notice. That's exactly what happened. She found out her investment had been cashed out after the creditor acted on the cession.

Despite the fact that the debtor paid only five instalments in a year, the credit provider granted her a second loan and then restructured the debt for a term of 60 months. The debt was left to escalate to the max before the creditor acted on the cession, and just before the debt prescribed.

In another case, a domestic worker was being harassed by a furniture retailer for an outstanding debt of R7,000-odd. The debt was for a stove she had bought on credit for R4,200 (R6,169 including interest) and for which she had already paid more than R11,000. Had her employer not got involved, she might have ended up paying the retailer R18,000 for a R4,200 appliance.

Domestic workers are among the most vulnerable in our society.

According to the third annual SweepSouth Report on "Pay and Working Conditions for Domestic Work in SA", most domestic workers (74%) have seen their income plummet to below R2,500 owing to the pandemic. While most earned more than that before Covid, only 14% of domestic workers earned more than R4,000 a month.

The survey shows that the average domestic worker's basic expenses amount to a total of R4,225 a month.

The average SweepSouth domestic worker earns R3,359 a month, which is R545 a month more than the average domestic worker who is not on the SweepSouth platform, according to the survey.

Ninety percent of the 5,000 respondents in this year's survey are breadwinners and 73% are single mothers.

The report says that while the establishment of a national minimum wage (of R2,740) was an achievement, it's clearly not enough to cover basic expenses. "This has forced many families to take on debt which often spirals out of control."

SweepSouth says 70% of domestic workers surveyed are in debt and almost half (46%) say they are further in debt due to the pandemic.

Sadly, for most domestic workers there was no financial support from their employers during lockdown, SweepSouth says. Only 35% received "some" support, including money and food vouchers.

While the report acknowledges that many employers had themselves suffered salary cuts, it's a shame that so many are happy to pay a minimum wage instead of a living wage. A living wage is the minimum income necessary for a worker to meet their basic needs. According to Code for Africa, it's R6,800 a month.

In order to pay a living wage, you might need to cut back on domestic services. So instead of paying a full-time domestic worker the minimum wage per month, that R2,740 buys you eight full days a month. In that way the worker can serve multiple employers who all pay her a living wage and all those wages make up a decent income.

While availability of work is also a challenge, especially now, if you are privileged enough to afford domestic help you should use that privilege to pay a living wage. It may entail lifestyle sacrifices on your part, like cutting back on luxuries. You should use your privilege to speak up for your employee when she's trying to enforce her rights against a predatory lender, but if you're not also paying her a living wage you too are doing her a disservice.

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