In South Africa, there are approximately 800,000 domestic workers, and the majority are black women from marginalized backgrounds. The existing literature on domestic work primarily focuses on women performing cleaning, cooking, and care duties. However, there is a lack of discussion about the experiences of men in this traditionally feminized job. Interestingly, in the 1880s, black men were the preferred domestic workers in white households during the establishment of the mining industry in Johannesburg. These men, known as houseboys, took on tasks such as cooking, cleaning, nursing, and caring for colonial families. However, over time, the landscape of domestic work changed, and women became the dominant workforce in this industry.
Despite this shift, there is still a small proportion of men who work as domestic workers, with some of them being migrants. Since the end of apartheid in 1994, South Africa has experienced an increase in migration from neighboring countries like Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. These male migrants come to South Africa in search of education, employment, and better livelihoods, relying on friends and family already in the country to find work.
As a researcher studying domestic work in South Africa, I noticed a gap in studies that specifically focused on male migrants working in this field. Consequently, the common perception of domestic work revolves around affluent female employers hiring black female domestic workers from marginalized backgrounds. This dynamic often leads to power imbalances and economic exploitation in the employment relationship due to intersecting factors of race, class, and gender.
In my study, I aimed to shed light on the experiences and working conditions of male migrant domestic workers in Johannesburg. Through interviews with six male Malawian and four male Zimbabwean domestic workers employed by affluent white employers, I found that these men faced similar challenges as their female counterparts. Their tasks ranged from indoor cleaning and cooking to outdoor responsibilities like garden maintenance and pet care. They worked long hours, often starting their day early and ending late at night. Additionally, they frequently took on additional jobs during weekends for extra income.
Despite their employers’ opulent homes, male domestic workers lived in small rooms at the back of the property, hidden from view, much like their female counterparts. Their living conditions resembled the squalid quarters of domestic workers during apartheid. However, the men considered their wages reasonable, earning more than the minimum wage for domestic workers in South Africa. They were also able to engage in wage negotiations, improving their own well-being and that of their families.
It’s important to note that none of the male domestic workers in this study had written employment contracts or were members of a trade union. Job security is precarious in this field, and contract renewals are costly and time-consuming. Migrant domestic workers, in particular, face vulnerabilities and challenges, such as difficulties accessing healthcare.
In order to protect and improve the livelihoods of all domestic workers, including migrants, in South Africa, regulators, enforcement agencies, and trade unions must work together to ensure their rights and recognition. Domestic work should not be associated solely with marginalized black individuals but should be valued and respected as a crucial contribution to households’ functioning.