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RecensionsBook Reviews

From Servants to Workers: South African Domestic Workers and the Democratic State, By Ally Shireen, Ithaca: ILR Press, 2009, 228 pp., ISBN: 978-0-8014-75870.

  • Andrew Sparks

…more information

  • Andrew Sparks
    DeMontfort University

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This book presents an examination of the domestic worker issues in South Africa, in the post-Apartheid era. What makes this study relevant is that, in the period under examination, the African National Congress (ANC) government has been partners in a long-term alliance with the dominant trade union federation. Furthermore, they have been substantially supported by the working class, who at the time of the first democratic elections in South Africa, were predominantly made up of the black Africans. Among the first laws introduced by the ANC government was an overhaul of employment legislation, which significantly benefited black workers, and domestic workers perhaps more than any other. The book adopts a radical feminist approach to the analysis of the issues, and thus explores issues of power (held by the state, employers and employees) and exploitation, in the various relationships.

It argues that, under apartheid, domestic workers had almost no political rights and were subject to almost feudal levels of exploitation and servitude in the intimate relationship of employment within a private household. In contrast, in the post-apartheid era, they have full citizenship and protection under what is probably the most progressive employment legislation in the world, which has metamorphosed their role from that of servant to being employees. However, many other people around the world, particularly those from developing countries who work as domestic workers in developed and wealthier countries (such as Filipinas in the United States), are still subject to a more antiquated relationship of servitude.

It also notes that, in the post-apartheid era, “nouveau-riche blacks increasingly employ domestic workers” (p. 7). However, the scale of this is hugely downplayed to focus exclusively on those working in white households, in spite of quoting official statistics which show that some 60% of South African households employ a domestic worker. In a country where the white population represents a relatively small minority, this implies that a very significant number of domestic workers are employed in Black households, but the workers in these households do not feature in the research.

Even at the height of Apartheid, with it’s ubiquitous controls on all aspects of workers’, and particularly domestic workers’ lives, the author argues that domestic workers still found ways to restructure the working environment in order to retain some control over their private lives. One of the most common ways was to spurn the “live-in” arrangements of living in the back-yards of their employers, in favour of finding their own accommodation, often miles from work, and then commuting. This gave these women who were being paid to look after other people’s families, the first opportunity to also look after their own families.

The sector has also seen a shift towards part-time work, but interestingly, for some this was introduced by the domestic workers rather than by employers, as it facilitated a shift from selling their labour power, to selling labour services. This meant that when the set tasks were completed, the job was done, rather than having to continuously clean up behind the family.

Among others, this switch was at the behest of the employer, justified on the basis of affordability. These employees appear to frequently fail to find sufficient work to fill the working week, and these workers often expressed dissatisfaction with this working arrangement. Curiously, rather than arguing that these employees are dissatisfied because they have had the working arrangement thrust on them and that they had lost power in the working arrangement, instead of accepting it voluntarily as a way of retaining power of their labour power, (which would fit better into her radical feminist framework), the author attempts to argue that they find the working arrangement unsatisfactory because it is accompanied by work intensification (p. 57). This paradox is never explained or even mentioned.

In tracing the development of domestic labour under Apartheid, Shireen argues that all of the legislation affecting women in the domestic sector was aimed at controlling, rather than protecting, the employees. This control, and the state agencies that administered it, served to exacerbate and intensify the exploitation of women.

In contrast, when the post-Apartheid government sought to protect them, the workers decided en masse and apparently spontaneously to eschew the formalization of their employment relationship through the legislation, which branded domestic workers as vulnerable, and therefore set out to protect them. However, the workers, to a large extent, did not regard themselves as vulnerable. They certainly did not want to exchange the maternalist relationship they had successfully negotiated with their employers, for a paternalist relationship with the State. The concept of power is seen as being important here, and whereas the workers had managed to negotiate a certain degree of power through the intimate working relations, they did not want to relinquish this to a state that sought to protect them, while they had not sought such protection.

A methodological weakness of this book stems from its claims to be examining the relationship between the workers and the State, whereas in reality, it includes an extensive discussion of the workers’ relationship with their employers. This is at the heart of its greatest weakness. The author’s claim to be looking at the relationship between workers and the state is used to justify not including any private employers in the research. The result is that the employers get vilified (not always unjustifiably), but do not even get an opportunity to explain the relationship from their side.

Nevertheless, this book is recommended as an in-depth look at a subject area that has attracted less attention than it deserves, in a setting that provides some interesting challenges for workers, unions, employers and the state.