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The process of setting a minimum wage for domestic workers in South Africa

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The process of setting a minimum wage for domestic workers in South Africa

Getting the process started

As seen below, the process followed in drawing up the domestic worker sectoral determination was more elaborate than provided for and required by the BCEA. One of the additional aspects of the domestic worker process was the development of a detailed document that was formally issued in 2001 as a way of consulting with the public and any interested parties (Department of Labour, 2001) rather than preparing such a document only for the Employment Conditions Commission. This consultative document provides the basis for a much more detailed record of the development of the domestic worker sectoral determination than is available for other determinations.
The consultative document records that in about 1994 the National Manpower Commissioned debated whether a minimum wage for domestic workers should be introduced, but could not reach consensus. The main sticking point was reportedly a concern that a minimum wage would result in large-scale dismissals and thus unemployment.
Not mentioned in the consultative document, the Presidential Labour Market Commission of a few years later proposed support for domestic workers, as well as farm workers, being covered by a minimum wage. It acknowledged the challenges, including enforcement and “potential disemployment effects”, and suggested that several different minima might need to be set, with local authorities deciding which was appropriate in their area. It suggested further that local authorities might set up advice offices to assist domestic workers with contracts and ensuring the minimum wage. It also recommended that payment in kind be phased out, but that this be handled “sensitively and realistically” (Commission to Investigate the Development of a Comprehensive Labour Market Policy, 1996: 68-70). The Commission’s report did not elaborate further on the details of a possible minimum wage.
A few years later, with an amended BCEA in place, and a Minister of Labour and Director-General of Labour both of whom had domestic workers as mothers, the process was initiated. The Minister of Labour included the intention to investigate wages and conditions of employment for domestic workers in his fifteen-point programme of action for 1999-2004.
As noted above, the BCEA requires that the Department of Labour issue a public notice announcing the terms of reference for any proposed sectoral determination asking for written input from members of the public, conduct an investigation, and prepare a report for consideration by the Commission. The Commission then discusses the report and makes recommendations to the Minister in respect of a determination. The Act also provides for the Commission to hold public hearings.
In May 1999 a government gazette notice invited “written representation” from “interested parties” to the Commission in respect of the proposed domestic worker determination. There was limited initial response, but after the period was extended, a total of 114 written representations were received. The majority of the submissions came from employers. The Department of Labour understood this bias as reflecting low levels of literacy among domestic workers. It is likely that there were also low levels of awareness among workers about the process.

The investigation phase

The investigation process that followed, as required by the BCEA, included national and provincial workshops, surveys and desk research and analysis, and consultation through 64 half-day public hearings spanning all nine provinces. This was followed by serious discussion within the Commission which saw important (generally positive for workers) changes to the provisions proposed in the Department’s consultative document.
The domestic worker determination was not the first to be put in place. It was preceded by determinations for contract cleaning (determination 1), civil engineering (2), private security (3 and 6), clothing and knitting (4) and learnerships4 (5). Several of these covered sectors that had previously been covered by wage determinations.
The domestic worker process was the most extensive undertaken to date in respect of any of the sectoral determinations. The process for the agriculture determination that followed soon after was also extensive, and these were the only two determinations for which consultative documents were published in government gazettes. The agriculture process was, however, not as extensive as that for domestic workers. Further, one of the lead actors was clear that it was not by chance that the domestic worker determination preceded that for farm workers. In this person’s eyes, this reflected the realisation that domestic workers were the priority in needing recognition and protection.


The national workshop focused on “internal” actors and probably mainly served the purpose of awareness raising and information sharing as to what was being planned. These included representatives of the CCMA, Compensation Fund, Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF), officials responsible for skills development, and officials from the Gauteng offices of the Department of Labour. All provinces were also required to organise provincial workshops as part of information gathering. The provincial workshops were used for distribution of questionnaires for employers and workers on wages and conditions of employment.


The Department of Labour commissioned and/or undertook several surveys. The Fafo Institute conducted a telephonic survey of domestic workers in Gauteng province (covering worker demographics, wages and conditions of work), the department itself distributed one-page questionnaires (covering wages and conditions of work and tasks) through the provincial workshops and at taxi ranks, and the skills development section of the department commissioned a survey on skills levels of domestic workers which included questions on wages.
The telephonic survey in Gauteng (Eldring, 2000) achieved a response rate of 300 from 1,500 phone numbers sampled from the telephone directory. In each case, the worker rather than the employer was interviewed, and all but one of the workers was a woman. The report notes possible bias in terms of which employers would allow such interviews to happen and the fact that the employer might have been present during the interview.
Of those interviewed, 76 per cent lived on the premises of the employer. Overall, the mean monthly wage was R717, with a median of R650. The mean wage for live-in workers was higher than that for live-out workers, but because live-in workers tended to work 19 more hours per week than live-out, their hourly rate was lower. Domestic workers in Johannesburg recorded a mean wage of R923 per month, as compared to a much lower R706 in Pretoria and R608 in East Rand. Mean wages tended to increase with level of education. Workers with higher wages tended to have more benefits than others, refuting suggestions of a trade-off between wages and benefits.
The taxi rank initiative saw 25,000 questionnaires distributed in the main cities of the nine provinces, with 2,885 filled questionnaires returned. The taxi-rank questionnaires were analysed by Markdata, a market research company.
The number of worker questionnaire per province ranged from 93 in KwaZulu-Natal, to 937 in Mpumalanga, while the number of employer questionnaires ranged from six in KwaZulu-Natal to 412 in Eastern Cape. In the latter province, there were only 204 worker questionnaires completed, while in other provinces there were more worker than employer questionnaires. Markdata’s report does not, however, that some workers may have completed employer questionnaires and vice versa. The nature of the sample and the problems in the process mean that the data cannot be taken as providing a completely accurate picture of the sector.
The questionnaires prompted for a specified list of possible activities, that included general cleaning (90 per cent of workers) and washing and ironing (84 per cent), housekeeping (61 per cent), cooking (48 per cent) and looking after children (39 per cent). The report noted that live-in workers tended to do more tasks than those who did not. The questionnaire also allowed for respondents to specify “other” tasks that they did. This open-ended question generated the following list of diverse tasks: wash the car, care for the pets, clean vegetables, serve at restaurant, receive calls, assist in guest house, wash windows, wash walls, shopping, wash carpets and floors, clean the (home) office or factory, painting, assistant carpenter, sell fruit, wash curtains, security of the house, cashier, looking after sheep, flower arranging, work in maize fields, messenger, work in shop/club, repair welding machine, water flowers, open/close the garage door, milk cows, clean the swimming pool, sew, sweep yard, sell farm produce, take care of racing pigeons, make sandwiches, assist with photocopying, “tea girl”, and work with meat. These responses illustrate the diverse tasks that domestic workers may be required to perform.
Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal workers recorded the highest wages, and Northern Cape the lowest. Live-in workers recorded a mean wage of R467 versus R452 for live-out. However, as with the telephonic survey, when the hourly wage was calculated, the live-in wage was lower, at R2.33 for live-in versus R2.95 for live-out.
The Department of Labour also commissioned the Development Policy Research Unit (DPRU) at the University of Cape Town to analyse household survey data to provide estimates of monthly earnings including payments in kind, identify the factors influencing earnings, and estimate the impact on employment of the establishment of a minimum wages.
The DPRU (Bhorat, 2000) used data from two household surveys conducted by Statistics South Africa5 for this purpose. Wage data were taken from the October Household survey of 1995 as this was the most recent survey to have earnings reported in exact rand amounts rather than wage brackets. Information on payment in kind was taken from the same survey of 1997, which included questions to employers on this topic. Amounts were adjusted for inflation to 2000.
The DPRU reported the national monthly median wage for domestic workers in 2000 as R409 in rural area and R588 in urban areas. This was equivalent to 20 per cent of the age of a clerk, 7-12 per cent of the wage of a skilled worker, 20-30 per cent of the wage of a semi-skilled worker, and 37-43 per cent of the age of unskilled workers. Provincially, wages were lowest in the Free State province.
The DPRU estimated disemployment effects for both the short- and long-term. The report warned that if the minimum was set “too high”, there was a “very serious risk of large and significant job losses.” It offered four further reasons why caution should be exercised. Firstly, for rural domestic workers those losing jobs would face extra difficulties in finding other work given low demand for labour. Secondly, the limited skills of domestic workers would make it difficult for them to find other work. Third, in the economy as a whole there was increased demand for skilled workers and falling or stagnant demand for unskilled workers. Fourth, because most domestic workers supported other people financially, a greater number of people would be affected by each job lost. However, the report noted that the possible disemployment effects needed to be balanced against the need “to provide a signal to employers that rampant exploitative behaviour toward these workers will be made illegal.”
In terms of poverty alleviation, the report noted that although a minimum wage at a level likely to be agreed on might not lift workers above the poverty line, it would increase the income of many workers and thus alleviate, if not eliminate, poverty.

Public hearings

As noted above, 64 public hearings were conducted, with four to six hearings in each of the nine provinces. The venues included both urban and rural areas. A total of 1,800 domestic workers and 350 employers attended the hearings. The Department acknowledged that the relatively few employers who attended the meetings were likely to be those with better wages and working conditions. There is no record of any real opposition being expressed to the introduction of a minimum wage.
Where possible, the Department of Labour tried to involve organized workers, but the weaknesses in organization at the time meant that this only happened in two or three provinces. The only notable input from “organized” (quasi-)employers came from the Confederation of Employers’ Organizations, an organization established in 1989 to represent “consultant and client service agencies” in the area of human resources and industrial relations.
In the absence of a strong domestic workers’ union, COSATU (1999) submitted a well-researched 10-page submission which probably best represents the organized worker position. COSATU’s submission expressed full support for the establishment “and enforcement” of a minimum wage for domestic workers. It argued that the wage should be a “living wage, informed by the social and economic needs of domestic workers and their responsibilities in providing for their families” and that there should be real increases in the wage over time. It proposed “graded minimums” and linkage to a “comprehensive education and training strategy” for domestic workers. It also supported the establishment of a government-supervised retirement funds and coverage of domestic workers by both the UIF and Compensation Fund. It proposed that the Department of Labour investigate establishment of a government-regulated placement agency for domestic workers, and also take “active steps” towards establishment of a centralised collective bargaining system for the sector.
The document’s elaboration of the proposals suggested that the domestic worker minimum should be similar to that for the cleaning sector. (In 1999, the hourly minimum for cleaning was R6.00, giving a monthly wage of R1,170 for a 45-hour week.) The document referred to proposals on actual levels made several years earlier by SADWU, noting that these would need to be adjusted for inflation. The SADWU levels were R1,200 per month for skilled workers and R800 for semi-skilled. For part-time workers, a daily rate of R75 or hourly rate of R9.72 was proposed. Transport costs were to be an additional payment for all categories of workers (implying that live-out workers should receive higher payment than live-in workers if they worked equivalent hours).
The COSATU document proposed that in-kind payments only be allowed if the employer and worker agreed to this, and that at least 75 per cent of the minimum wage should be paid in cash. The document recorded COSATU’s “in principle” opposition to having different minima for different geographical areas, but accepted that there might need to be a transition period over which a single minimum was achieved.
In terms of the need to consider affordability, COSATU’s submission suggested that households should employ a domestic worker for shorter hours if they could not afford the full-time minimum. However, it also pointed out that middle- and high-income households would pay much more if they used commercial contract cleaning, childcare and laundry services rather than the services of a domestic worker. For low-income families, it suggested expansion of public-provided facilities and services.

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