Tales of a Domestic Worker: South Africa brews big storm over a coffee mug
2018-12-01 14:12:00 -


By Mariah Bhatti


Two weeks ago in the Sowetan, a South African newspaper I always read once a week to follow what’s happening there, I came across an article that quickly caught my eye with the headline: A mug for your maid? Outrage at Pick n Pay crockery.

Pick n Pay is one of the biggest supermarket chains in South Africa, and its stores can even be found in neighbouring Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Lesotho. I remember that as a child, we would never shop in Pick n Pay.

You would know the social status of a family by where they shopped. Nobody I knew shopped or even worked in Pick n Pay. It was like a family thing; If you didn’t have a relative who worked there, you could never easily find a job there.

That’s a problem with low-income societies with high unemployment: where unemployment is high, you’d need to be really well connected or purely outstanding, highly resourceful and ruthless at selling yourself to land even an ordinary job.

But looking at such well-off societies like Ireland, with a highly educated population and low unemployment, one needs all of the above to land a full-time, permanent job, if they still exist somewhere. As a migrant I certainly feel that pain. But I have also heard of many native Irish, educated and well-able, who struggle to find permanent work and have had to leave for the UK or mainland Europe, or even North America and Australia, to find more secure employment.

Although South Africa is relatively developed world, it still has high unemployment among young people and those with a low level of education. It is also where a secondary school certificate is now a prerequisite even to get into cashier jobs or cleaning jobs, and particularly in the civil service.

That’s why for many the only options are being a housekeeper or garden boy, jobs that only require minimal experience and a reference. The irony with the mugs story is that many ‘maids’, as domestic workers are commonly known in South Africa, only go to Pick n Pay as part of their work, or to get those few bits that are the same price as in any other place where ordinary people shop. Also it suggests that people with maids in their homes — the more well-to-do — are the cohort who mainly shop in Pick n Pay. God knows what Pick n Pay did with those mugs after the uproar prompted them to pull them from the shelves.

In a society built on racial segregation — and where to this day many domestic workers’ employers dictate that their staff use separate utensils, crockery and cutlery and wash their clothes separately — who would have thought that encouraging superiority and inferiority was a good idea? I imagine this had to be approved by a marketing or advertising team somewhere in a boardroom, who sat there in their suits or pencil skirts or smart people’s jeans and approved that ‘Maid’ or ‘Garden Boy’ mugs were a great idea?

Thankfully they were reminded that South African society has moved on from the servantship era and the majority will oppose such ideology. It is indeed heartwarming when people come together to fight prejudice. I wish we could do it in our everyday life and all aspects of it.


Mariaam Bhatti is a member of the Domestic Workers Action Group and Force Labour Action Group of the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland.

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