The exchange of labour for money is the greatest confidence trick since some dude called Abraham duped his slave into paying for his own circumcision. I don’t know the finer details but apparently it’s all there in the Book of Genesis. Read it if you like. Don’t tell me how it ends. Badly, I imagine.
This is how transactions involving the swapping of work for currency almost always end. Badly. Bosses feel they’re not getting value for their money and employees feel they’re not getting money for their value. So the bosses start firing people, some of whom come back a bit later on with their 9mm and do a bit of firing of their own. Fair play to them.
Unskilled labourers have the worst jobs and are the least protected. Despite the way they’ve been and still are treated, domestic workers, for instance, hardly ever wake you up with a cup of tea and a gun to your head. There’s more chance of your wife doing that sort of thing. Except your wife wouldn’t bother with the tea. Unless it was poisoned. In which case she wouldn’t bother with the gun.
Domestic workers have been with us for a long time. I don’t mean in South Africa, specifically. Throughout human history there have been drawers of water, hewers of wood, washers of dishes and shovel-faced bastards exploiting them.
Not much has changed over the last four thousand years. Sure, the pay has gone up a bit but the work is pretty much the same. Do the laundry, kill the king’s half-brother, mop up the blood, fellate the first cousins and report to the supervisor for further instructions.
I have a domestic worker and I live alone. I find that appalling. How much of a pig can one person be that he has to hire another entire person to clean up after him? A pretty big pig, as it turns out. In my defence, though, I didn’t go looking for her. She came to me. She knocked on my door one day and asked if I needed help. I asked if she was a psychiatrist. She said she wasn’t.
My instinctive reaction was to threaten to have her arrested if she ever again showed up on my doorstep falsely offering to make the pain in my brain abstain.
But then my empathy gland squirted a shot of empath into my brain and I relented. It’s why I can’t go to the SPCA on a Saturday morning just to browse. Of course I’m not equating humans with animals. I’m merely trying to make the point that I am sensitive to the needs of sentient beings of whatever species. But while I’ll happily take in a homeless dog, I’m unlikely to extend the same courtesy to a homeless man. Does that make me a bad person? In a perfect universe, yes. But the universe is not perfect. It’s way too big for a start. And just when you think you’re getting somewhere, you trip over a brown dwarf and fall into a black hole.
“How are you placed for Tuesdays?” I said, as if I were arranging a regular squash game with my lawyer. Not that I have a lawyer. I did, once. His street name was Psycho Syd and he refused to defend me on anything so I had to let him go.
She said Tuesdays were fine. I quickly introduced myself because if you don’t do this right away, domestic workers will call you “boss” or “master” and you let it slide until it’s too late to start over and you spend years hating yourself for allowing this strange woman to make you feel as if you were the captain of the Amistad with a brother who personally captured Kunta Kinte.
“Call me Sir Ben,” I said. “We shall reserve my full title for special occasions such as my birthday.” She nodded slowly. “And what, my good lady, is your name?”
She glanced over her shoulder as if she were considering making a run for it. She wouldn’t have got far. I would have brought her down like a leopard on a startled doe and dragged her back to the doorway so that we might complete the formalities.
“Betty,” she said. I snorted and raised the singed remnants of my eyebrows. “Madam,” I said. “I am not referring to the name foisted upon you through neocolonial imperatives. What is the name given to you by your mummy? Your tribal name.” She sighed heavily. “Nkosiphendule.” I nodded. “Great. Betty it is, then.”
Snap survey. Would you rather live in a developed country where everything works but you can’t afford a servant – or in a country with a rapacious government and corrupt president but, thanks to a history steeped in violence and injustice, there’s a massive pool of cheap labour available?
Before you decide to emigrate, bear this in mind. A company called Maids of London charges the equivalent of R250 an hour for someone to come around and do a little light dusting. And if you’re going to New York, be prepared to pay between R1 500 and R3 000 a day to have your home cleaned. For that price you’d expect Angelina Jolie in a frilly French maid’s outfit. Instead, you get a belligerent Bulgarian banging on about how the Syrian refugees are destroying Europe.
In South Africa the recommended minimum wage for domestic workers is R10.95 an hour. This sounds like a rate set by the National Party in 1984 but it’s not. It was set by the comrades of the national democratic revolution.
But, hey, things are looking up! The department of labour has just announced an increase for domestic workers. From 1 December 2016, Betties, Beauties and Nonkululekos from Richards Bay to Langebaan can legitimately expect to be paid the magnificent sum of at least R12.42 an hour. Everyone gets a Ferrari! Hang on. That works out at just under R100 for an eight-hour day. Hold the Ferraris.
Capitalism being considerably more odious than comparisons, it behooves me to point out that the minimum wage for our cabinet ministers is R6 000 a day. Most of them, needless to say, aren’t fit to scrub our floors.