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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Paying The Help - Minimum wage for domestic workers in Zambia

Recently, the main conversation topic in Zambia has been the plight of thousands of middle class educated elite who feel they can no longer afford to exploit the labour of other less privileged and less educated Zambians in their homes, kitchens, nurseries and gardens.
As some background, the government of Zambia recently announced a major increase in minimum wages for domestic workers, general workers, shop workers, security guards etc. The move was widely praised by some (and covered positively in the state controlled media), while understandably opposed by Zambia Federation of Employers and others. You can read the Zambia Daily Mail's take here. Following the public's response, Vice President Dr Guy Scott insisted in Parliament that there would be no job losses. A promise that is impossible to keep. Read what the Times of Zambia had to say about it here
I am currently away from Zambia and when I saw the constant stream of Facebook and BBM status updates about domestic workers' pay, I was concerned that the new minimum wage for domestic workers would be somewhere in the region of K800,000 to K1,000,000 ($160 to $200) or more. I was baffled by the outrage, when I learned that the increment for domestic workers was from K250,000 ($50) to only K500,000 ($100). I am disappointed in Zambians. Do we think that 500 pin is too much to pay someone who works six days a week? Who cooks and cleans up after you? Who raises your children on your behalf? Really? One Hundred Dollars is too much to do work that you can't or won't do?

There are a number of sub-issues in this debate that I am not going to address in any depth here. I will only list some of them to illustrate that I am aware of them:
  1. There is a finite amount of money in circulation, so if people have to be paid more, either prices go up or some people get laid off. Definitely both will occur
  2. The reduced job market will mean that people will become more desperate and therefore more vulnerable to seek other means of livelihood. This could be engaging in criminal activity or lead some into further exploitative, slave-like conditions in certain work places or activities
  3. People who are already doing too much will be burdened with even more work because employers can't afford to engage more staff or because the stingy boss will use this as a convenient excuse to NOT pay people due compensation for their labour
I have only listed three things (there are of course more). None are why I have an issue with my fellow Zambians on this subject: 
  • People don't want to share
  • People have double standards
  • People have little respect for justice, for fairness and for human dignity
  • But mainly, people are just plain selfish!
I think my current maid is great. I have been fortunate. I had to go through 10 other maids before I found her. My first maid was great too. Josephine was 17 or 18 (perhaps older or younger). She worked at my friend's house during the week and at my place on Saturdays. I lived in an SQ (servant's quarters) and paid her K10,000 per day ($2). When we had a vacancy for a cleaner at my office, I approached my friend who graciously agreed to let her go to a better paying, less intense job in an office. However, she continued to work for me on Saturday's until she got married and moved to another town. 

Sadly, I can't remember the next few maids, whether their names or anything about them, other than that they came two to three times a month. I know that at times, I managed without a maid for a few months. This should have been 2005 into 2006 and then up to 2008. During this period, I moved from Lusaka to the Eastern province of Zambia. Again, I had someone to come in on Saturday's to wash clothes and do a bit of dusting. I did my own ironing and general cleaning. I lived alone and was rarely home, so once a week was enough. In 2008, I moved back to Lusaka into a much bigger house, had way more stuff and was earning enough money to get someone to come in 3 times a week. She worked for my sister the other days of the week. She was a great house keeper, but she had a horrible attitude. I think her previous employers were really fancy because she refused (yes, she refused), to clean the floors without tile cleaner. Simple washing paste wasn't good enough. I also had to buy shower spray and other cleaning products, which basically do the same thing as detergent paste. My sister had a young child and so did she, so she helped herself to my nephew's clothes. She also ate me out of house and home. Not eating to be satisfied, but carrying some home. If there was no bread, she fried herself chips that she ate with mayonnaise. When you are stealing, you usually don't realise when you are stealing alone. And because I lived alone for some of the time she was there, it was easy for me to tell what she was taking home with her. I'm not for being chummy chummy with my maids -- but this one wouldn't even say good morning on some days. She had to go. 

Next was probably my favourite. Matilda was in her late teens and had a bubbly personality which melted my heart. She was great with laundry and got along with everyone in my household. But, like most young people, she had aspirations and just didn't want to be a maid. Unlike many others, she had the courtesy to tell me and brought a friend to take over. The friend didn't last. She wanted to earn the money, but not have to work for it. She didn't turn up one day. Then, I turned to a friend's trusted maid of 5 or 6 years to recommend someone. She sent me an older lady who unfortunately suffered from ill-health. She was always off work and when she came had no energy to work. She sent her younger sister (or daughter, I can't recall) to take over. Tina reminded me so much of Matilda. But, she didn't last long either. She managed to find a college place and move on to a better occupation. Her sister took over. In contrast, she was surly and resented the fact that circumstances forced her to work as a maid in order to make a living. She showed that resentment in her work until one day she got paid and didn't return the next day. Then, I asked my next door neighbour's very helpful and long serving gardener to find me someone. She probably stayed the longest -- about two years. But that time was fraught with sit-down sessions to discuss time-keeping, the work itself, attitude etc. Finally, I had enough and let her go. 

I then turned to a maid centre. They gave me a few ladies to interview. I settled on the incumbent. Her previous employers had moved to another town and the maid centre manager recommended her because she was hardworking and diligent. She has been earning the new minimum wage (K500,000) from day one, because the maid centre told me that was what was considered fair pay.

My purpose in telling my maid story was to show that I know what good maids and bad maids are. But, the basic conditions are not supposed to be dependent on whether you like someone or whether they work well or not. For example, even evil maid was entitled to leave, time off for funerals and to attend sick children. And, although it's a perk and not an entitlement, I gave her a half-bonus (on account of her evilness) because she had kids and they deserved a little extra for Christmas, regardless of their evil Mum. Since she stole for them, I'm assuming she shared with them too.

I work hard for my money and I expect my maid to do the same. I take a mother's day once in a while (three or four times a year) to visit the doctor or sit at home and do nothing if that's what I want. My maid has that right too. I expect leave, and I give my maid leave. In my ten year working life I have been known to call in sick with a minor headache once or twice. Should I be outraged if once in a while my maid does the same?
It disappoints me that many of those complaining about paying the people who clean up after them and raise their kids, USD100, think nothing of putting in fake Brazilian hair weave for USD400 a pop. If the law pegs minimum wage for domestic workers beyond your salary then guess what? The cost of living has gone up and you need to adjust your budget accordingly. We must pay people fair wages and accept that times have changed. The same people who complain that the government is not doing enough to develop the economy, are whining about the new minimum wage because it is inconceivable to them that the benefits of economic growth should trickle down to others. They argue that Zambia is a poor country and therefore people are supposed to be paid peanuts and should be grateful for it too.

Our people have a sense of entitlement that is shocking. Not just maids, but their bosses in offices who want to earn a living but not work hard for it and yet expect their workers to do more than they are willing to do. Poor work ethic in Zambia is a national problem that applies to employees at every level from Chilenje to state house and I refuse to attribute it to maids only. We are all poor workers. Each and every one of those people expects to get a fair wage and maids are no different. So the argument that some maids are lazy and therefore they should be paid peanuts does not hold water in my view. The fact is, this is the 21st century and as has happened in other more developed countries, the passage of time and growth of the economy means that affording domestic help will slowly become a luxury that only a few can afford. That's the way it is SUPPOSED to be.
Earlier this year in the Lusaka Book Club, we read The Help (also an Oscar winning movie). It is about racial discrimination in the American deep south. The book is set just before the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King etc really took off and focuses on the relationships between white southern women and the black maids who they trusted to raise their children, clean their homes and cook their food, but whom they refused to share toilets with. What struck everyone in the discussion was that there was almost NO DIFFERENCE between the white women's racist and hypocritical treatment of their black maids and the way WE, the middle class educated black elite treat our illiterate or semi-literate workers. When it is about looking down on someone because of the colour of their skin, it is wrong. But when it is about class and social-economic status, we just say that is how it is. These are the exact same excuses used to justify slavery hundreds of years ago, apartheid in South Africa and racial segregation laws in the United States. It was a sobering thought for us all.

Soon after that, I came across a guest post on another blog that I follow, which focuses primarily on natural African hair in Nigeria. The guest blogger was a PhD candidate researching domestic workers in Nigeria. It's quite a long article, with some great comments and I encourage you to take time to read it and see that this 'problem' is not confined to Zambia alone:

"Unfortunately, the people that see my research as a way forward in Nigeria are very few and far between. Majority feel I am wasting my time speaking to the ‘house-helps’. I cannot count the number of times I have been told that domestic workers themselves were the problem and if I had to do the research I should be speaking to employers so I could hear the stories of the ‘nanny who gave her Madam’s children AIDS’, the ‘housegirl who bewitched her Oga and kicked the Madam out of the house’, and ‘the wicked nanny who kidnapped her Madam’s baby’."
I wrote a comment similar to what I said above about the parallels between The Help and our own relationships with domestic workers in Zambia. A reply from the researcher, Zahrah echoed my thoughts. She wrote:

"I constantly have this discussion that the issue of race and domestic work found in the USA in the ’50s between white employers and black workers is very similar to the issue in most African countries. The only difference is that race is substituted with class and in some cases ethnicity. In domestic work (as in slavery, apartheid and all that you mentioned), difference is usually used to emphasise superiority and inferiority – be it difference in terms of race, class, economic status and even gender."