Home > child care, labor and capital, migration > Jacklyn Cock, “Trapped Workers: The Case of Domestic Workers in South Africa”

Jacklyn Cock, “Trapped Workers: The Case of Domestic Workers in South Africa”

“Trapped Workers: The Case of Domestic Workers in South Africa”

Jacklyn Cock

excerpt from Patriarchy and Class: African Women in the Home and Workforce, Sharon B. Stichter and Jane L. Parpart, eds. Boulder & London: Westview Press, pp. 205-219, [1988]

In addition to lessening their employer’s sense of social isolation at the cost of exacerbating their own, many domestic servants take considerable responsibility for the care of their employer’s children.

She gets the children up in the morning, gives them their breakfast, walks the youngest to nursery school, has our lunch ready for us when we return.

This responsibility for child care involves one of the central contradictions in the institution of domestic servants. Several servants interviewed stressed that they had to look after two families and neglect their own in the process.

We leave our children early in the morning to look after other women’s families and still they don’t appreciate us.

We have to leave our children and look after our madam’s children. We have not time to look after them when they are sick.

It is black women who suffer most from the neglect of creches by the state. Furthermore, black women generally and domestic servants specifically are most vulnerable to dismissal on the grounds of pregnancy (Cook et al, 1983). One respondent said that the employment of domestic servants explained “why white people’s children don’t grow up criminals. It is not from having everything they need, but having nannies who watch them every minute of the day and instill discipline.” Often the person looking after the servant’s children is a daughter who is kept out of school to do so. This perpetuates a vicious circle of povety, inadequate child care and interrupted education among blacks’ children (especially females) while white children benefit from the attention of two mothers.

Molyneux has emphasized that it is the work of child care which “is of the most benefit to the capitalist state” (Molyneux 1979, p. 25). Child care is expensive if it emphasizes child development rather than custodial care. Therefore in advanced capitalist societies “the only large scale possibility that could bring  about the socialization of child care would be for the state to expand its provision” (CSE 1975, p. 14). But state organized institutions for the reproduction of labor power are financed by state expropriation of surplus value. Thus since the state provision of childcare centers, kindergartens and creches would add to capital’s costs for reproducing the labor force, this would only be likely to occur in a period of rapid capital accumulation and consequent increased productivity. In such a situation capital would gain from releasing women for wage labor, because that would expand the labor force producing surplus value. But in South Africa the availability of cheap, black domestic labor creates this flexibility, and women can easily be incorporated or expelled from the labor force according to the pace of capital accumulation. Hence this is not a demand likely to be made on the state by the white working class.

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