Mavis Chobe recently landed a steady job for two families in a middle-class Johannesburg suburb. She spends eight hours a day, five days a week, cleaning and doing laundry.
For this, she receives 550 rand a month (about $67) a small transportation subsidy, and two meals a day.
"I'm lucky," Mrs. Chobe says, explaining how she supports her parents and three children on her tiny salary. "It's not enough, but there are no jobs."
For hundreds of thousands of uneducated black women like Chobe - who were denied education and higher-paying jobs under the apartheid system, the decades-long institutionalized practice of segregating blacks from whites - domestic work is still the only available employment.
But with the country's soaring unemployment, competition for jobs is intense, and many women, who often provide the sole support for their families, are still willing to work for a pittance.
The government is attempting to extend special protection to this loosely organized sector. The Department of Labor has proposed a new minimum wage bill, which, it hopes, will raise the standard of living for them.
But the government is walking a fine line between protecting employees and protecting jobs. With an unemployment rate just under 26 percent, these jobs are a vital part of the economy, and setting an unrealistically high wage could decimate a fragile economic sector.
"I know that there are people who say that this minimum wage will lead to job losses, but we ... believe that this report gives employers room to maneuver," says Eddie Jayiya, a spokesman for the Department of Labor.
Seventeen percent of South African women with jobs, an estimated 800,000 in all, work as domestics. Like Chobe, most are middle-age black women with little or no education, which the government says are among the country's most exploited workers.
Although most of the country's new labor laws apply to domestic workers, few have contracts with their employers, and there is little recourse for workers who have been mistreated. The sole union for domestic workers, which pushed somewhat unsuccessfully for new laws to protect domestic workers, folded four years ago for lack of funding. One that opened recently is struggling to build a worker base and secure funding.
Under the terms of the proposal, urban workers, such as Chobe in Johannesburg, should make about 600 rand (about $72) for a 45-hour work week. Rural workers would receive a minimum monthly wage of 400 rand (about $48.50). These minimums would increase by 7 percent for each of the next two years.
The report also recommends that domestic workers be paid overtime if they work more than 45 hours a week.
According to a government survey of domestic workers, more than 40 percent currently make less than this suggested minimum wage.
The effects of the minimum wage, and the subsequent job loses, are likely to be felt mostly in rural areas, where wages are generally lower and a tradition of payment in kind - the provision of housing and food in return for labor - is more common.
"There are many of the old right-wing Afrikaans people who are still of the old farming mind-set that says domestic work is a form of feudalism, where they work for you and get housing and food in return," says economist Azar Jarmine. "The purpose of this is to give these workers some defense against exploitation."
Many economists like Dr. Jarmine feared that the government would set an unrealistically high minimum wage, but say they were pleasantly surprised.
"I think the levels which they set indicated the degree to which they were sensitive to the potential job loses in the sector," says Haroon Bhorat, director of the Development Policy Research Unit at the University of Cape Town."
The Congress of South African Trade Unions, however, harshly condemned the proposed minimum wage as a serving to "maintain the current levels of inequalities and trap hundreds of thousands of workers into what is known as the category of the working poor."
COSATU argues that the proposed minimum is below a living wage. It would like to see the government set an hourly minimum of 9.72 rand an hour.
"We're not prepared to accept the logic of the argument that you can't set a realistic minimum, because it will cause job loses," says Patrick Craven, a spokesman for COSATU. "Once you accept that, you're just accepting that wages will sink to the lowest level at which anyone is prepared to take a job. Given the high level of unemployment in this country, that means people will work for almost anything."
But economists say that COSATU's proposed minimum would lead to massive job loses. The government estimates that even its current proposal will lead to nearly 40,000 job loses, nearly 5 percent of all domestic workers. For families like the Chobes, who depend on a domestic worker's wages for survival, the loss could lead to homelessness.
Enforcing the new law, however, may prove to be the most difficult task for the government.
"Obviously there's going to have to be some campaign to educate stakeholders on how this thing is going to work," says Mr. Jayiya. "But the minister believes that most people will accept the law without enforcement being necessary."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor