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Bottom of the ladder: USD$7 per month wages for maids.

The Minister of Labour recently released a statutory instrument that pegged the minimum wages of domestic workers at $179/USD$7. At a basic level, it made me think around the issues of the maids’ lives and how much middle-class Zimbabweans rely on them. More fundamentally, it made me think about issues surrounding household work, the role of fathers and mothers and what it all means in terms of how our societies are structured and influenced by two things we do not think about enough in tandem, patriarchy and capitalism. These twin evils have reduced fathers to walking ATM machines and mothers to being glorified servants. I question this here.

Firstly, and to get this out of the way, this promulgation from the Minister is irrational and in no way will it be done in practise. The reality of maid work is that it has historically not received substantial protection from the law. Overtime, unlike other more ‘professional’ occupations such as teachers, doctors, miners etc, in an effort to have power for their work, the maids most powerful weapon against their employer has been their ability to wake up and leave. Most maids prefer not to have written contracts because in a lot of cases, written contracts take away that power. Some families get angry with maids who do not return back to work from a holiday, but this act is the only power tool they have in a capitalist system which protects the wealthier people.

The promulgation also demonstrates the attitude of the prevailing government. Cabinet had initially agreed on these poverty wages in September 2019. Since then, the value of the Zimbabwe dollar has halved, inflation standing at 500%. A government that has workers interests at heart would never have sat down and passed a law that codifies the poverty of a people, in this case, young women. The Minister of Information came out stating that this is the minimum wage and employers are “encouraged” to increase wages based on prevailing circumstances. This is a tacit admission of how unrealistic the minimum wages are but more importantly, how the government is not willing to shake things up in favour of workers.

Fundamentally, it is because maids are the embodiment and indicator of a liberal, middle-class life in most post-colonial nations namely, Nigeria, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya etc. The maid is a sign of advancement and has allowed for the economic liberation of more educated women who are able to enter the workplace. It is the idolised dream of a number of middle-class families to have a two-income family. Beyond being a dream, it has become a necessity too. A combination of stagnation of wages and salaries, longer working hours, the growing pool of labour (shown by a decrease in formal employment figures) has meant that for most families to comfortably raise children both parents must be working. This situation then means that domestic workers (who are usually also parents) lose the joy and chance to spend time with their own children. The capitalist system which we unconsciously subscribe to has meant that there is a constant creation of hierarchies, constantly taking away the opportunity for people to be full humans who can take care of their families financially and socially.

If maids will not do the work, who will? This raises the deeper question around ‘unpaid work.’ Unpaid work is household duties such as cooking, cleaning, washing etc. This is primarily done by women (mothers, sisters, daughters.) Since women do most of this work, their value and ability to fully participate in the workplace is diminished. This is why maids, as explained earlier are a necessity. For middle-class women to go to the cities to gain a wage or salary, they hire a maid to take care of the home duties. This is a problem because maids usually earn very little and also lose the chance to spend time with their children. The other solution that is usually proffered on this issue is that fathers should do their equal share of work at home. This would help women do less work at home and be more productive at their paying occupations. This solution shouldn’t be seen as the decisive action but the first step in a line of other, more systemic, nuanced solutions that are required.

Social analysts assume that fathers do not do unpaid/household work primarily because of patriarchy. Patriarchy allows men to neglect their home duties and focus on earning income. Patriarchy is an important element, but it is a deathly combination of patriarchy and capitalism that has resulted in what we define as a norm. Under the colonial system, black men where the main targets for cheap, paid labour. Their monetary control gave them control over women and the household, but it also ensured that there was a severe separation between men and their families. Because of the long hours, the workload to make ends meet etc, men barely had any contact time with their families. As a result, they replaced their fatherly duties with a dollar. Being a father was no longer a social action, but mainly and only a financial transaction.

I only mention this history of men, family and capitalism to argue that this situation is playing itself out on middle-class women. As more women have entered the workplace, a cruel choice between being a caring mother and being financially able/independent is being made. Some women are delaying having children because having children at an early age affects career advancement. However, this is a choice that should not be made in the first place. We have normalised the oppression of capitalism on family relations for over a century in post-colonial nations. We have normalised absentee fatherhood, overworked mothers, as if it is a fact of life, but it’s a structure that we need to question and dismantle for the sake of parents, young women and children themselves. What is to be done then?

In the immediate, taking the government’s Statutory instrument on domestic wages to court based on the constitutional right to a fair decent wage is an act that could win. It would challenge this law based on socio-economic conditions and increase our awareness of how capitalism as a system creates a ladder of economic oppression in the households; men oppressing women, women oppressing other women who are their maids. Secondly, the gendering of work (this is work for men, this is work for women) is a culture that needs to be destroyed. The key measure that can be done in this case is to make maternity AND paternity leave equal (3-6 months). This will create a fundamental change in the way we understand caregiving and allow men to have the opportunity to be better caregivers.

To lessen the need for maids (who also deserve to be full parents) we need to look into creating public daycare systems. A place where parents can drop their kids off in the afternoon at the cost of the city or state. This is something that becomes even more paramount for women who are street vendors. A public daycare system in the middle of Harare Central Business District would allow them to fully participate in their economic activities without worrying about the safety of their children. Such as initiative has done well in Brazil. This is a solution that could aid the MDC-Alliance in being more gender-sensitive in their solutions in the cities they have some political control in.

It is possible to have an economic and social system that does not rely on maids. A basic income grant (a pilot study has been done in Namibia) for families would allow them to reduce the real need for more time and work to earn more and allow for more time at home. This would go hand in hand in looking at how we can reduce the working hours from the normalised 8 hours to maybe five or six, or have the weekend starting on Friday, commonly called the four-day working week. This is not trying to breed a generation of laziness. It is recognising that paid work is not the only kind of work people need to live full lives. It is fighting for the idea that fathers should spend more time with their families and that mothers too should have fulfilling careers. It is imagining a society where maids (an oppressive job) is a thing of the past. No one should ever be paid USD$7. No one.

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