More than the Minimum

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Many years ago Dan Ndzuzo and I managed a small employment/job readiness project through our church (Khanyisa Community Church) in Gugulethu. We had the privilege of walking alongside people who were seeking work and connecting these job-seekers with opportunities. One of the painful aspects of the work that changed my life was listening to men and women sharing stories of exploitation and racism, sometimes covert and other times overt, stories that opened my eyes to the ongoing suffering and immoral treatment of domestic staff in South Africa. Some of the stories were from homes that were clearly Christian in their beliefs. We reflected on homes that had ‘missions jars’ for children to give some of their pocket money to foreign missionaries, while domestic staff were being paid just enough to pay for transport, food and the most basic of shelter, and were clearly struggling to make ends meet.

I started to ask questions like, “If we truly believe all people are equal, surely how we treat staff should reflect that?” and “How can Jesus followers who are called and motivated by the call to love our neighbours, be a part of a system that is clearly exploiting others?” and “If the Bible is so clear on its command not to exploit others, why is it so rife amongst Christians in South Africa today?” and “What is lacking in our theology that allows for seeing people struggle and suffer under the burden of poverty and inequality within our immediate sphere of influence?” and “If I truly saw my staff as equal as a human being, would I be able to watch them leave work in the pouring rain knowing they would arrive home drenched a few hours later?”

My questions remain, because the status quo remains largely the same 15 years later.

And as we face a growing hopelessness, anger and discontent amongst young people, I think about how many young South Africans have seen their parents come home after a long tiring day, and hours in public transport without much to show for it. Young people who have seen the ‘junk’ passed on by their parent’s employers. Who have not had their parents at home because they work long hours and then make the long journey home. Who have heard story after story, as Dan and I did with Jobnet, of racism, be it of the ‘polite’ kind or of the more obvious kind, from their parents. Or who have seen the effects of the status quo and system that does not honour their parents. I think of James 4 which says, “The wages you failed to pay the men who mowed your fields, is crying out against you.

In our unequal society with our history, I believe it is very important to continue to employ people, although some would argue it perpetuates the current system. Many people have few employment choices due to our past. But as we seek to bring about structural change and ensure that fellow citizens have greater options as they consider life vocational choices, there are things we can do immediately to limit the daily damage. I believe it is imperative that Christians act immediately on the call of God to not exploit, to serve those who have been treated as ‘lower than’ in ways that show they are truly equal, and this requires going above and beyond what is comfortable as the scales have been tipped immorally for so long. It is imperative that workers (whether permanent or ad hoc) are paid a living wage, which is more than double the minimum wage, and are paid for leave to rest well, or paid if the weather is bad (many men who work in the garden on an ad hoc basis are not paid if it is raining and they are unable to work).

Treating domestic staff with the dignity every human being deserves as it relates to their economic freedom and sustainability, for many privileged South Africans, is the very first circle of practising justice and righting the wrongs of the past.

Five basic first steps:

  1. Have a conversation with your staff member/s around how you address each other. Ask if the name you are calling them is their mother-tongue/preferred name. If not, find out what their preferred name is, learn it, and call people by their first-choice name, regardless of the language (or whether you find it easy to say). We have a history where South Africans were given English names that were easier to say, regardless of mother tongue, and reversing this is one of the first steps in restoring dignity.
  2. Increase your staff’s wages with immediate effect. Cut out other things in one’s lifestyle that would open up money for a more just wage. Decide which sacrifice you and your family will make together, if that is what it will take. If you are truly unable to pay a living wage after adjusting your budget and making necessary sacrifices, then cut down the staff members’ hours so that they can be at home or working elsewhere, for the same wage you were paying before. For example, if you cannot pay a living wage for 5 days, then hire someone for 2 days, at the same rate, and adjust the work load accordingly.
  3. When adjusting the wages, don’t use the ‘going rate’ as a yardstick as the going rate is way too low and based on people’s desperation and our history of exploitation, and not a just and fair system. Use the baseline of around R6000 minumum per month as a yardstick for the first steps towards a living wage, anything below that is a diluted form of slavery, which we, as privileged South Africans, have grown accustomed to, but which is alien in more just and equal societies. We need to spread the burden that people are carrying, and it is often the vulnerable who pay the price.
  4. If you don’t have one already, write up an agreement of leave (annual, sick and family) and draft a pay slip so that the person can use it in processes that require proof of earning and also create the sense of security of employment. Ensure that you are registered with UIF and have the right basic labour practices in place. Click here for basic information.
  5. Speak with your employee about what their vocational dreams and aspirations are, and then work on a plan together to help ensure they reach their dream – with your assistance of resource, support, information and flexibility. I know many people who have walked alongside their domestic staff until they find and are equipped to move on to the work they would love to do.

When in doubt about the nitty-gritty, spend time with God and ask what ‘Loving your Neighbour’ looks like when it comes to your domestic staff. Can you share their load or burden in more meaningful ways? If this was a loved one, what would my desires for them be? What role can I play in their life in reversing the impact of our history on their lives and family and future generations?

The joy of doing the righteous thing and following the Jesus way in this, will be rewarding for you and your family, and your domestic staff and their family. Let us start a Living Wage revolution today. The impact will literally be felt for generations to come.