In the debates on domestic workers’ experiences at work and their relationships with employers, men are often left out. Domestic work is traditionally associated with femininity.
Although women have traditionally been the majority in paid domestic work, this hasn’t always remained so. When the mining industry began to develop in Johannesburg in the 1880s, it was black men who were preferred as servants by white families. They were known as houseboys, and they cared for white colonial families.
A minority of men work as domestics. Some migrants. Since 1994, South Africa has experienced an increase in migration, mainly due to its relative stability and economic opportunity. They come to South Africa in search of education, jobs, and better livelihoods. To find work, they rely on family and friends who are already in South Africa.
Most migrant males work as gardeners or security guards. Some Malawian and Zimbabwean men migrate to South Africa as domestic workers or servers. These jobs are typically associated with women.
Exploring unfamiliar territory
As a researcher on domestic work in South Africa, I was surprised to find that very few studies focused on the male migrants who performed domestic work there. As a result, this type of work is often viewed as a partnership between affluent women employers and marginalized black female domestic workers. Intersections of race and class between employers and domestic employees often lead to unequal relations in power and economic exploitation within the employment relationship.
In my study, I investigated the experiences and duties of male migrant domestic workers in Johannesburg with the goal of providing some insight into their working conditions.
An acquaintance of mine who employed a male Malawian maid in Johannesburg referred me to another male maid in Johannesburg. Wealthy white employers interviewed six male Malawian domestic workers and four male Zimbabweans in Johannesburg. Wealthy white employers employed all in Johannesburg for over five years.
The experiences of migrant men add a new level of complexity to studies of domestic work. This is where class, race, and gender intersect.
Male domestic workers from South Africa
My research showed that men could find employment in domestic work.
They faced the same challenges as their counterparts. They included long hours of work, paternalism in the employer-employee relationship, and marginalized status.
Respondents said that they were responsible for a variety of tasks both indoors and outdoors. Their indoor tasks included cleaning and tidying the homes of their employers. Along with grocery shopping, meal preparation, and laundry, they also performed other duties.
Their responsibilities included garden maintenance, pool maintenance, pet waste removal, cleaning of outdoor grilling areas, and driveway sweeping. The employees were also responsible for the security of their employer’s homes and pets while they were away.
Daily life for male live-in domestics was similar to that of female live-in domestics. The day began at 06:30 with the preparation of breakfast for the employees. After the employers left, the workers cleaned, cooked lunch, did the laundry and tended to the garden.
The day’s long work often ended at 20:30 after the employer had dinner prepared. Weekends were usually spent doing extra pieces of work, such as painting or gardening for others.
Has found that other researchers have also found. The small rooms were often furnished with simple furniture and resembled the cramped living quarters that domestic workers lived in during apartheid.
Men said that they thought their salaries were reasonable. The men earned between R5,000 (US$260) and R8,000 ($416) per month. This was much higher than the minimum wage in South Africa of R4,067 ($216) for domestic workers working eight hours per day, five days per week. The majority said that they were able to engage in wage negotiation, which allowed them to improve both their own and their family’s wellbeing.
The male domestic workers included in this study did not have written contracts of employment with their employers or belonged to a union such as the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union. It is time-consuming and expensive to renew work contracts every few years. Job security can be precarious.
Domestic work: The perennial issues
In South Africa, domestic work is still associated with marginalized Black individuals. This perpetuates a historical and social imbalance.
The status of paid domestic work remains low. There are no formal qualifications required and only a limited amount of specialized knowledge. As other studies have confirmed, the contribution of domestic workers to household functioning is essential but often taken for granted.
Despite legislation, domestic workers still work long hours and do physically demanding work. Some male domestic workers could have negotiated better pay and working conditions, but others may not be able to. They might remain in precarious work environments.
Most domestic workers do not have job security.
Protection is still limited. Often, migrant workers who are employed as domestics have difficulty obtaining healthcare.
To protect this group against exploitation and improve their livelihoods in general, South African regulators, enforcement agencies, and trade unions need to recognize and protect all domestic workers, including migrants.