Siphokazi Mdlankomo, a 39-year-old domestic worker based in Cape Town, debuted to rave reviews on the show
Siphokazi Mdlankomo, a 39-year-old domestic worker based in Cape Town, debuted to rave reviews on the show

Although not an obvious source of controversy, MasterChef South Africa has been hitting the headlines over the last week or so – in the UK at least, if not at home.

It all came about after contestant, Siphokazi Mdlankomo, ended up creating a social media storm on Twitter with her outspoken views, which were picked up by one of the British newspapers.

Siphokazi, whose infectious laugh and outgoing personality have apparently won her an enthusiastic fan base, is a 39-year-old domestic worker in Newlands, an upmarket area in the southern suburbs of Cape Town, where she has worked for the last eight years.

Her employer, who shares her love of cooking, taught Siphokazi to make everything from quail ravioli to tomato consumme - and even helped devise her Masterchef menu.

But on entering the competition, Siphokazi intimated that her aim was not only to become a professional chef, but also to prove that domestic workers around the world were not second-class citizens and should not be treated as such.

As a result, she is using her high-profile position to push the idea that they should be taken more seriously and held in equal regard to other professions.

But achieving her goal may prove to be a bit of an uphill struggle. Numbering an estimated 1-1.5 million, domestic workers in South Africa make up a sizeable chunk of the country's employed population of 13.5 million.

Included in the definition of domestic workers are gardeners and paid carers, but the overwhelming majority are 'maids'. This is the rather unpolitically correct term used for employees like Siphokazi who, depending on whether they "sleep in" their employers' place or not, can end up doing everything from cleaning, ironing, cooking and childcare to even walking the dog.

Mainly comprising black and "coloured" (mixed race) women from disadvantaged backgrounds with often only a basic education and few skills, they generally work for the minimum wage in affluent white households located mostly in urban areas.

According to John Fourie, an economics lecturer at Stellenbosch University, as many as one in five South African women are employed in this way, with four out of five working full-time at more than 28 hours per week.

Poor wages

But even though domestic staff appear utterly integral to life in middle class South Africa and have been for generations in a way that is unthinkable in the UK, their wages remain dreadful – although few employers seem concerned about it, being more interested in cheap labour.

In urban areas such as Johannesburg, the hourly rate for this kind of work is ZAR 11.27 (£0.64) per hour or ZAR 1,318.44 (£74.85) per month for a 27-hour week or less.

For a 45-hour week, which is the legal maximum, rates drop to ZAR 9.63 (£0.55) per hour or ZAR 1,877.70 (£106.60) per month. But such payment, which is poor even by South African standards, drops yet further if workers are employed in rural districts.

Things are better than they were though. The South African government's introduction of a minimum wage in 2002 led to an earnings increase of about 20% without any feared concomitant reduction in employment levels, Fourie says.

And at the end of last year, South Africa became one of the first countries in the world to ratify the International Labour Organization's Domestic Workers' Convention no 189, which set standards for an estimated 50-100 million such employees across the globe.

Under the treaty, workers are entitled to protections that are more or less universal elsewhere such as weekly days off and limits on working hours - although transport costs are not covered.

And this does seem to me to be quite a major oversight in South Africa at least. For example, because the demographic makeup of neighbourhoods has changed little since the days of apartheid, my 'maid' lives in the 'black' township of Soweto and I live in the predominantly 'white' suburb of Parkhurst.

This means that she has to travel at least an hour to get here, which costs her ZAR 20 (£1.14) in a minibus taxi on an agency wage of ZAR 150 (£8.53) per day, which takes a big lump out of it.

Other safeguards under the Convention though are guarantees to protect workers from violence and abuse – something that strikes me as very necessary in a scenario where, behind closed doors, 'madam', or 'sir', can prove to be a saint, tyrant and everything else in between.

"Hidden" industry

And abuse certainly goes on. Purely anecdotally, the various women who have worked for me on a weekly rather than daily, live-in basis have mentioned employers referring to them "girl" in a rather derogatory fashion no matter what their age, or docking wages for accidentally breaking a glass (illegal).

I have also been shocked that every single one has mentioned my "kindness" for simply chatting, brewing cups of tea, and making food for us at lunchtime rather than just ignoring them or expecting a couple of slices of bread to suffice – something that would seem like common decency to me, especially when people are working for you all day.

But a British friend reliably informed me that such fraternisation was not necessarily 'done' with your cleaners in the UK either and was, in fact, possibly a class-based, north-south divide thing. So who knows.

Anyway, whatever the truth of it, it strikes you that enforcing good behaviour is not an easy task in a decentralised, "hidden" industry such as this, where a mere 15,000 are signed up members of the national African Domestic Services and Allied Workers Union, and many more seem unaware of their rights.

Moreover, in a country where unemployment officially stands at around one in four but which is more like 40% across the wider economy, according to Fourie, it is unlikely that most people will make too much fuss in case they lose their jobs – or risk gaining a reputation as a trouble-maker in a sector where employment is largely based on word-of-mouth recommendations.

But things are not all negative, he believes. Although wages may be poor, at least domestic workers are in employment when so many others are not.

In addition, such employees often have better standards of living than a cleaner in a hotel, for instance. This situation is because of "the social ties that are created between domestic workers and their employers, social ties that reduce inequality", Fourie explains.

Anecdotally again, many employers give their staff goods such as clothes and shoes that they no longer want, help them out of sticky financial situations and, in some cases, even pay for their children's education.

So while few would argue that the current economically unequal system, born out of 350 years of colonialism and apartheid, is just, if domestic work helps to improve the lives of poor households and, in the process possibly even build more positive race relations, hopefully the situation is not all bad either.