Domestic Workers in South Africa: It's Modern Day Slavery

By Mohamed Motala · 4 May 2010

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Picture: Gail Pellet Productions
Picture: Gail Pellet Productions

"The boss can also tell you what to do around the house. For example, she’ll say wash the dogs even though it’s not your job to do that. Then she’ll tell me to put sunscreen on the dogs because they get burnt. Now the dogs run away from me when they see me because they hate sunscreen. Have you ever seen a dog that uses sunscreen?" (Domestic Worker from Pimville working in a Johannesburg suburb.)

There are approximately one million, mainly black women, who are domestic workers in South Africa. The Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCEA) is the overarching piece of legislation that regulates their wages and working conditions in addition to, broadly speaking, all unorganised workers in South Africa.

Some economists argue that our labour legislation is too rigid and hinders economic growth by not allowing businesses and employers to create jobs, which we all agree are sorely needed. Such economists are likely to say that South Africa needs a more flexible labour market. Workers, on the other hand, are arguing that South Africa’s labour legislation is adequately enabling if employers are serious about creating jobs and not just growing profits. 

The BCEA is central to any discussion about whether the labour market is too rigid and an obstacle to growth or too flexible, riding roughshod over workers’ rights.  The Act, in conjunction with the Constitution, sets out the rights of workers to a livelihood and their rights as human beings.

The Community Agency for Social Enquiry (CASE), an NGO that conducts socio-economic research, recently had the opportunity to speak with some of South Africa’s domestic workers and their employers in six provinces including major urban centres, to test whether the BCEA was making a difference in their lives. The research was done on behalf of the Services Sector Education and Training Authority who will present a report of the findings to an International Labour Organisation (ILO) conference later this year. The ILO is considering developing a global convention around domestic work and South Africa, along with other countries, will be contributing to their process. 

The discussions conducted with workers and employers were extremely useful for gaining insights into the effectiveness of the labour legislation. However, testimonies provided by both domestic workers and their employers also provided damning evidence of the abuse of workers in South Africa’s middle and upper class homes.

Domestic work, like work on farms, is particularly difficult to monitor. It becomes tricky to enforce labour legislation for a variety of reasons that relate to the nature of the workplace and the work itself. Notably, work is done in private homes and hidden from the public. This is further exacerbated by the perceived low level of skills in a context where high levels of unemployment also place workers in a very vulnerable position.  

What emerged from focus group discussions with workers and employers is that there are many areas where initial improvements and early legislation have made a positive impact, but serious abuse of workers still continues. 

The BCEA makes provision for sectoral determinations wherein the most popularly known provision is the minimum wage. In 2002, a sectoral determination came into effect for domestic workers. It has since remained in place and makes provision for the minimum wage to be increased each year. Whilst all the conditions have remained the same, as from December 2010, the minimum wage for full-time domestic workers is R1442.86 or R1191.78 per month depending on the geographical area in which the worker works.

In general, when data collected by Statistics South Africa are analysed, the analysis shows some improvement in wages and access to benefits as well as the fact that written contracts are now more common for domestic workers than before the determination was introduced.  

In the focus groups conducted by CASE, it was evident that earlier campaigns about the sectoral determination had had some impact on sensitising both workers and employers to the fact that legislation that governed wages and working conditions existed.

However, workers reported that the legislation and their conditions of employment were being seriously undermined by economic migrants looking for employment. Employers are using the threat of employing vulnerable foreign migrants as a way of keeping wages low for domestic workers. 

“People from Zimbabwe are willing to work for R40 a day; I can’t do that because I can’t live off that. Most of the people working in the suburbs and complexes are the cheap labour from other countries. If you have a problem and talk to your boss, if you have an argument, they tell you that you can leave now because there are plenty of people from Zimbabwe that will work for cheap, that’s their advantage.” (Domestic worker from Orlando East working in a Johannesburg suburb.)

With regard to wages, it would seem that the initial campaigns to popularise the sectoral determination have not been followed up in that both employers and workers tended to refer to the R800 per month, which was initially set. The annual increases and revised wages catered for in the sectoral determination seem not to have taken hold. This is serious, as the cost of living and especially food prices have risen sharply in recent years. Food costs, in particular, consume a large portion of poor workers’ earnings. In essence, ignorance about the increases means that the legislation on minimum wages is not being adhered to. And, in some cases employers are ignoring even the R800 that they think is the minimum.

“When I hire someone I tell them that I can afford so much. It’s up to her to agree. If she doesn’t agree, she doesn’t have to stay.” (Gauteng employer)

South African-born domestic workers have, in effect, always been migrant workers due to economic and racial legislation that forced mothers and daughters to be separated from their families and live in suburban maid’s quarters or ‘backrooms’.  Historically, apartheid legislation dictated that their families live far from their places of employment, as their presence in the cities was made illegal. Thus, domestic workers have been living in poor accommodation for decades and whilst the mining sector and its single-sex hostels have been well documented, migrancy in respect of domestic work is less known and researched. 

The legislation around domestic work makes provision for "sleep-in workers," as they are known, and the sectoral determination provides some protection for their physical wellbeing. However, it is their social and family life that suffers most and mainly their constitutional rights around dignity that are violated. 

It’s a common sight to see domestic workers sitting around socialising with their friends on the pavements of middle class suburbs. In many cases, friends and family are not allowed to visit as private property laws allow the employer to control access. Domestic workers, as a result, do not have suitable spaces and time to engage in social activities and their lives are sometimes akin to modern day slavery and bondage.   

“The only law we know is theirs. They dictate what happens in their homes. They decide whether or not your friends can visit and whether you can bring your boyfriend. Sometimes they dictate whether you stay there or not. If you’re from a rural area and they don’t want you to live in their house, you have to find a place to live. (Domestic Worker from Pimville working in a Johannesburg suburb.)

A common concern raised by domestic workers is their employers’ relationships with pets vis-à-vis themselves. In the view of domestic workers, employers treat their pets better than their workers. Further, they are often given duties in relation to pets, which they despise as being demeaning areas of work. 

“I am starting to realize how we are exploited also now. These people have dogs that we must cook for and take them out for walks but that is not part of the agreement.” [1st participant]; “Those dogs eat better than you and sleep better than you.” [2nd participant]; “I cook this chicken for the dog and I eat it before giving it to the dog. Do you know that it must be roasted as well?” [3rd participant]; (Domestic workers from Gugulethu working in a Cape Town suburb).

Discussions of abuse also centred on employers being disrespectful of the worker as an adult and human being. Domestic workers are often referred to as "girl" and treated like children. Domestic workers observe their treatment and compare this with how children are treated in the household. Given the closeness with the family and the fact that they occupy the same personal space, sometimes employers see them as part of the family. Sadly, however, they are relegated to being treated as children and not as adults who have control over their own lives.   

"My girl would never open the gate not unless she phones me first…. She doesn’t even open for the postman if he says that he has a package to deliver." (Cape Town employer)

Domestic workers also complained about racism and the neglect of human rights. The practice of employers viewing workers as inferior to them in relation to access to food and the use of cutlery and crockery is still reported as being an area where workers felt they were being discriminated against based on their race.  Evidence that the history of apartheid lingers on in the homes and especially in the kitchens of employers was strong.  

“Where I work, the utensils I use to eat stay outside. It is apartheid…because they still think that Africans aren’t on the same level as them. When I want to eat I have to get the dishes from outside and she’ll dish up for me.” (Domestic worker living in Orlando East and working in a Johannesburg suburb.)

One of the areas woefully neglected is the area of health and safety. There is little evidence that there is any medical aid or medical insurance for domestic workers. At best, workers injured on duty report that they get assisted to get to the nearest public facility. When pregnant, registered workers generally only get what the Unemployment Insurance Fund pays them during the period when they give birth to children. Domestic workers demonstrated that they were aware of and expected the same rights as other workers. 

"My boss studies labour relations. She has the books and the certificates for that but I can’t even bring up topics like sick leave to her. Last year I had gallstones, and I stayed at home for a week. After that, I had to work off that week in December when they were on holiday. She made me look after their dogs. I was in and out of hospital. I wasn’t given a bonus. They said it’s because I’d been sick. In January, she called the hospital and suggested that I go for my operation. I stayed at home for three days and I had stitches. I had to go back to work, bending over and all of that despite my condition." (Domestic Worker from Pimville working in a Johannesburg suburb.)

Perhaps the discussion of whether our labour legislation is too restrictive and needs to be further liberalised needs to consider more seriously the plight of exploited workers. Our society and economy will not grow if human rights and workers’ rights are not protected.

In the last 16 years of our democracy no progress has been made in reducing inequality whilst just a little progress has been made in reducing poverty, but nowhere near enough to eradicate this self made scourge.

It is time to consider some far-reaching and radical changes in the way that we organise and prioritise the debates about what will be good for all of us in the long term.  

Motala is executive director of CASE, the Community Agency for Social Enquiry.

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Annoyed Western Cape
3 May

What has Pet Care to do with Domestic Work?

I'm actually quite angry here. According to the one comment by a domestic worker she/he objects to either caring for or walking the dogs, and the remark about sun screen not necessary is obviously fatuous and ill-informed! I even have a cat who needs sun screen on his ears (especially white cats who are cancer prone). South Africa has the highest paid labour force in the world - even Foschini is now moving some of its production to Swaziland. During the xenophobic riots here in the Western Cape I sheltered five Malawian families on my property for several months - including arranging and paying for schooling until it was safe for them to rejoin their community. I did ask them to help out a bit extra - to cover the additional costs, some did, some did not - bitching that it was 'slave labour'. One thing I've learnt from this - charity is a good thing, but one more often than not is spat upon when giving charity (as they perceive it as their right). I have a domestic that comes in once a week, from 9am to 1:30pm. For this she is paid R100 plus a balanced lunch. Waitresses earn less than this! If we price ourselves out of the market, let us not complain about starving. R40 a day is better than nothing per day. Right now I'm unemployed, I'm a white accountant, and R40 a day will buy bread and milk at least!

Life does not owe us a living - let us be grateful for the work we do have!

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John Right
21 Jun

Domestic Workers

Domestic workers love to do "affirmative shopping" while the employer is away. Why should you pay domestic workers and still give them lunch, my employer does not give me food or are they still underprivileged in the new SA?

karin retief
4 May

Abuse of Domestic Workers

I've been doing a photo essay on domestic abuse in Namibia for the last couple of months and its saddened me how 'inhuman' some people treat the women who clean their houses. The stories are horrific - from being given a jam tin to use as a toilet to being told to go to the beach to use the area there as a toilet. Some women are physically abused as well as verbally. Payment is as low as R300 a month! 7am - sick leave, no off days on public holidays...the list of abuses goes on and on.

Its not just in SA. Here in Namibia too its like you say, "Modern Day Slavery" and its happening in more homes than we think. It's a silent abuse everybody knows about, but nobody talks about.

One woman said: we treat our "girl" very well...she gets a coocked meal everyday...but what she doesnt say is that that meal is dished in a tin plate and she has to eat it outside.

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17 May

Cut the Crap

Without the work, there would be one million more people starving. I have employed domestic workers for years and would rather be without them because they are more trouble than they are worth. Nevertheless we need to employ them because they need the jobs. I wish mine would duck -- but they stay on... So cut the crap!

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2 Oct


I run a small business and every day young people come to me for work, clean the windows, wash the cars etc. they will work for next to nothing just to buy some food, alas I must turn them away or risk the wrath of the labour dept. they don't understand that it is the very people they voted to power who are depriving them of work. I would have happily paid them to wash my car in 1990!
I had a live in maid with 2 daughters, I paid for all their food, clothing, education, medical, dental needs etc. Now they are living in a shack with nothing, they have been priced out of a job, the maid pleaded with me to keep her, she was happy with her few hundred rands pocket money and me paying all her expenses and could not understand that this was exploiting her, neither could I!
The maids children no longer go to school and have little future, the maid by all accounts now has several boyfriends, the labour department can pat itself on the back for a job well done!

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27 Nov


This article is very one sided. I know there are many employers that abuse domestics, but then there are many many (most??) employers who treat and care for their domestics very well. We have a full time sleep in domestic (currently a Zimbabwean) - she is paid R2000 per month, gets 3 meals a deal, eats the same food as the rest of the family, using our crocklery and cutlery, has a great room with good facilities (en suite bathroom, tv, quality mattress etc). She is treated as an adult, not like a child - yet she does submit to houserules. Your article mentions the fact that if a domestic has to phone the owner first before opening a gate for someone to be negative. This is not 'control' but rather protection. We live in a dangerous society with criminals often disguising themselves as something else in order to get access to the property. We also dont allow personal visit - except of course where we know the person visiting her. Again it is a safety aspect and it is unfair to make this out to be a form of 'slavery'. When our domestic gets sick i take her to my own doctor and buys her whatever expensive medicines they prescribe. I think if you take a survey among households employing domestics you may find that what you describe in your article is not the norm, and your conclusion that domestic workers is a form of slavery is completley false. This again does not mean it does not happen - the same is true in many other job forms.

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18 Jun


I agree on phoning the employer before opening the gate to anyone. In the suburb (S.A) I live in, 3 domestic employees were killed (during the day) in 2011. Apparently the murderers/robbers pretend they do water reading or are from telcom or the municipality, the ladies opened the gate and the houses were robbed clean. Those poor ladies were not just killed but raped as well. They didn't deserve what happened to them. Rather keep the gates closed to unknown.
These daylight robberies are on the rise and our housekeepers are the targets.

Anthony Rose
4 Jan

The Golden Rule

I'm a white who used to hire people in the 80s by the Golden Rule - pay them what I would feel was fair to be piad. This was much higher than the going rate.
I got saddened by all the selfish whites who never thought twice about what would happen to their workers when they reach retirement age. Or sick. Or injured. Or no longer needed. The country was sick.
But laws of good treatment like minimum wage won't solve the problem well enough. What is needed is a change of heart, by the one that gave us the golden rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

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Tim Burtan
28 May

the golden rule

i couldnt agree more. domestic workers are workers and not servants, their employment should be treated as a profession like any you wouldnt ask you accountant to fix your car than why ask a domestic worker to apply medical treatment to your cat. this is a moral issue and is offen mistaken as a political issue. laws will not fix the problem because this is a resolve that must be dealt with the heart. these are people and what is more these people are our fellow countrywomen.

i am a 25 year old man in south africa, i cannot afford a Domestic Worker but when i do i expect to pay a decent wage which will be above the minimum wage and if i had it my way i will also sent her on first aid courses and fire wardon training to effectively train and promote skilled labour like any other modern organisation that employ and gives on the job training.

we must promote the profession on a social scale, legitimise it and the beneifits will come automatically as a result. just think how much safer and effective our households can be if we know on our way to work our homes are in the hands of professional.

thank you Anthony Rose, for being a south african who isnt afriad to be a beacon of light.

14 Sep

Just a Comment

There might be good employers out there, but there are also some bad ones and this is what the article is highlighting...the bad employers! To the white employers who treat their domestic works well - round of applause to you. Educate your next door neighbours to do the same!!!

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Rosy Jones
27 Dec

Unfairness as a Whole

The problem is still the same: only one view and not the total picture. At my office I, as a white qualified secretary, prepare lunchtime meals, and then eat in my office and not with the managers! At the Buckingham palace the same applies and in parliament as well. There are hierarchy which we are forced to lay down.

I agree that a lot of employers are mistreating their workers, but not all people do that. We work overtime in order to keep our domestic worker, which stop working each day at 17h00, sleeps her butt off until late in the mornings while we get up at 5 to work and to be able to pay her, cannot go on leave due to the economic situation but she EXPECTS a bonus and a raise, although we did not get a bonus nor a raise.

I do treat my domestic worker fair and good. She is a good person, but never even show gratitude when I do something for her. The saying goes that we give it to them as we are feeling guilty!! Really, that is what they say! It is time to evaluate the other side as well. I have a house because I have worked for it, it was not given to me and I do not feel guilty about it. I give her stuff to help her and that is all.

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Shelagh Aiken
29 Dec

Domestic Work in South Africa

The problem is the whole mindset in South Africa has to change, and domestic workers treated with the respect and dignity that all workers deserve, and not to be treated like children in the patronising way that they are. South Africa is one of the few countries in the world where domestic work exists on such a large scale and people are over indulgent and spoilt where it comes to people working in their homes. The disparity between the employer's home and the domestic worker's "room" is often disgusting, and having to wear a uniform is outrageous, and most often they are not allowed to use the bathroom in the employer's home. I live in New Zealand where domestic work does not exist! I lived in Ireland where domestic work does not exist except in the richest of homes.

My mother lived in Johannesburg until she died recently, she had dementia and chronic emphysema but I was determined to keep her in her own home as long as possible. Her carer initially worked for her as a domestic worker. Over the years as I was so far away, I gave her more and more responsibility to run the household and care for my mother, she enlisted her daughters who had qualified as auxiliary nurses to work in the house also, as my mum needed 24/7 care they did shift work sleeping alternately in the house with her.

This beautiful intelligent woman taught herself to drive at 50 years old so she could go out and do the shopping. She managed the house beautifully, including all the finances, the banking and even running my mother's smoked trout business, and any medical emergency that arose. My mother was always immaculately turned out and she was cantankerous and could be violent, her behaviour was tolerated in the most dignified manner by her carers.

I paid her carers what I thought was a fair wage and far beyond what I knew most people were paying, in fact, I didn't tell my friends what I was paying as I knew they would be horrified saying I was paying too much.

The overriding problem with domestic work in South Africa is the patronising attitude of employers to employees who should be able to live and work side by side their employers with dignity and respect, and not exploited as many many domestic workers still are in South Africa, and the minimum wage should be adhered to and workers need to appreciate their rights.

Thank God the CCMA does exist for people to turn to, but not enough people know they can insist on their rights. Apartheid still reigns supreme in the suburbs.

Respond to this comment

1 May


South Africa is also one of the few countries in the world with over 25% unemployment. Domestics are employees like all others. If other workers can wear can they. Do you think the "rooms" are better or worse than shacks?

Come live in SA and comment with an SA mindset. UK & European mindsets do not work here. Domestics need jobs. If I want mine to wear a uniform to provide a sense of purpose, and they do not want the job...their problem...couple of million left to choose from who will.

16 Jan

Wake Up SA and Smell the Coffee

We employ more than 3 million Zim's.....4.2 million SA citizens jobless....why? THE DEPARTMENT OF LABOUR!!! must allow people to negotiate their own contracts....

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2 Dec

Because South Africans think they are better than other Africans!

16 Jan


Whites are racist when they tell their domestics what to do, Blacks do not treat them any better....are they too racist.........find a black boss if you're not happy with your BAAS!

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Louelle Verified user
7 Feb

Dear Racist

I am in the business of helping Domestic Employers to become Labour Law Compliant - I do sometimes get domestic workers looking for work with me. I have Black ladies looking for domestics but the black domestic workers do not want to work for them. This brings me to the question - Is the White Domestic Employer that bad then???? I know they always pay more than the legal minimum and even add transport money that is not required by law. There is a big turn away from racism in the Domestic Sector as far as the Employers are concerned. As most of the Employers are woman, they have the compassion and empathy with their Employees and that is a very important factor bringing races closer.

17 Jan

Domestic Employer

I have a wonderful nanny/housekeeper. I don't like to use the word domestic as i feel it is a Derogatory term. If i would like help with something that has not been specified, I normaly ask Nikki if she would please assist me. I don't expect her to just do it. I have a contract with her which i obtained from the Labour department, she get her monthly salary paid into her account as well as payslip which I generate on Xcel. I believe as an employer you get out what you put in. If you treat someone with respect and dignity, you get the same in return. I love Nikki and she is a valuble part of our family. On the "whites are racist to their domestics" comment. You are an employee who has excepted a job with this person, if your mind is still this archaic you should not apply for such a position. And it is your right turn the job down. Further all duties should be discussed openly in the interview before you except the position.

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1 Feb

One sided subjective article

I'm sure that the points made here do exemplify some of the abuse that some domestic workers are subject to. It is awful to think that it happens. However this strongly worded article (out of interest how many focus groups were held and how did you find your participants?) fails to acknowledge that not all domestic workers are abused. In fact I would even go as far as saying that some take serious advantage of their employers and are very much displaying a strong culture of dependancy between themselves and their employers and have a very high expectation of being 'given' things. I must emphasis here that I am not making a sweeping generalisation and that this is not the case all of the time. But a piece of social enquiry needs to be unbiased and objective and not so blind to the multitude of possible scenarios, perceptions of these, and cases.

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6 Jun

One sided subjective article

I agree with Ralph. I think house keeps/domestic workers are taking advantage because there are all these new laws and regulations for them. Where are the employers rights protecting us. It's madness the terms and conditions they asking for in order to work for you. Some want to start work after 8am and finish at 1pm at a rate of R150,00 a day!(keeping in mind and going back to a laborers daily rate of R80,00 in SA)How do u get any work done if that's the case. What about meals included which are free of charge! I think domestic workers/helpers/house keeps whatever they want to be referred to as are way to spoiled these days and have too many rights!!!

28 Nov

Domestic Workers

Hey! Wake up! If you do not like the pay and the conditions of your employment- LEAVE! A quarter of the country's population is without work. Add to that the hundreds of thousands of foreigners that stream over our borders and you just know that work will be even harder to come by. But then, nobody held a gun to your head when you took the job. You are not doing anybody a favour either. You are free to find something else. Simple as that.

The second point is the whole racist thing. Funny how so many of these maids refuse to work for black "Madams" instead preferring the white "Madam"! Eish! You are soooo racist! You discriminate against the black "Madams". Why? I'll tell you why - because they treat you even worse than the white "Madams" do.

The Dept. of Labour puts in place all these fancy laws and regulations with the employee being favoured way above the employer with the result that many people like me who would have employed a domestic, now won't because it is unaffordable, and mostly, it is a veritable mine field where the "employee" can almost do as she pleases (steal your stuff, burn your clothes with the hot iron, break your best china, arrive late for work, or don't arrive at all) without any recourse available to the employer to recoup his/her losses. If the employer however pays the domestic the wage agreed to, and it is below that prescribed by the Labour Dept the same employer can actually go to jail, and be forced to pay "compensation" of some ridiculous amount to the domestic.

As for Mr. Motala, sir you need to go look up the meaning of the word "slavery" that you so freely use. In fact it is a slap in the face of any person who ever experienced being a slave. Slaves don't have ANY rights, not even a birthright. Slaves were the property of their masters, the same as a chair or a house. Many slaves were regularly beaten for any transgression and here's the main difference - slaves earn NO salary - nothing, zip, zero. So stop over-dramatising and-sensationalising, and instigating more feelings of bitterness, hate and injustice.

At the end of the day the employer has a right to decide the conditions of employment and the remuneration. If the domestic worker does not like it or disagrees, she should simply leave and find an employer who is willing to give her what she wants. I really want a Ferrari, but I can only afford a Fiat. If you think your product (your labour and service) is equal to a Ferrari, then go look for someone who wants and can afford Ferrari prices.

I know that right now there is a domestic worker somewhere near my home who is desperate for work. Her family is hungry and the prospect of Xmas is really bleak, because she has nothing. I would love to employ her, treat her with respect and dignity,and closer to Xmas give something extra just because it's Xmas. Unfortunately there is just no way, because I cannot break the law, so she will have to go hungry with her fatherless children and aging mother...

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18 Jun

Annoyed with this One-sided Article

This article annoys me because it is one-sided and makes all domestic workers look like they are Mary Poppins, and all white employers to look like they are slave masters. My partner and I (he is Indian and I am white) yesterday employed a middle-aged Indian woman to be our live-in housekeeper and maid. She is very happy to do this work and is very grateful for the job. After quite a long list of black maids, we have decided that we will not be giving any more jobs to ungrateful black people. We have always treated our domestic workers with respect, have paid them well above the prescribed minimum wage, and have always included them as a member of our family. In return, we have mostly been given a kick in the teeth. We are tired of being stolen from and having to put up with sour faces. We also simply can't deal with the myriad of excuses of why they need time off work, or why they didn't arrive for work. Their ancestors and spirits are not our problem considering that we pay them their full salary on time each month.

I am sorry to say this, but the black people who are native to South Africa have a disgusting, "entitled" attitude - across all job sectors. They are largely unreliable, arrogant and full of issues. That is why many people prefer to employ Zimbabweans who don't seem to have this disgusting attitude.

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