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OPINION: Domestic goddess, domestic goodness

I believe in levels of work and I believe in creating employment. My work includes raising our four children into wholesome, educated, secure, humorous and self-sufficient adults, who understand value and values. It's a big job and we are privileged to grant our children an opportunity to have me as a stay-at-home mom. Very technically though, I am never AT home. Mostly I am in the car, in a shop, in a queue, in a school meeting, in a bank, in a chemist, in a parking bay idling and waiting. I do understand the labours of love. I also understand that working moms have day jobs and they do these things during their breaks.

The debate between working mothers and stay-at-home moms remains polite, but there are undertones of rage. Those ongoing opinions leave both sides of the debate open to bludgeoning stares and tightly folded arms. I do take liberties because I have been a widowed, single mother with a corporate day job, which sometimes had me out of the country for 267 sleeps. At the time my eldest sons were 4 and 2 years old.

I am therefore not saying any of this tongue in my cheek. I know it's possible to work full time, study part time, be a parent, raise your kids and survive to write about it. Sometimes you need to ask for help, sometimes you need to employ the services of others. There are also those superhero moms who do all this AND homework and housework.

For me, domestic goddesses are the women, and more recently men, who clean our homes, do our laundry, iron with precision, they wash dishes and carefully pack everything away, out of sight. They supervise other maintenance people in our absence; they are trusted by and lovingly look after our children, our home and our possessions. They generally offer support in many more areas than one would imagine, or compensate them for.

A job as a domestic worker in our country leaves thousands of women vulnerable to exploitation. When I hear some of the horror stories I repeat them to those around me to gauge the average reaction, yet some people just don't see an issue. Many of us have become so conditioned to having help around the house that it is easy to take it for granted. It is also a job with the most erratic pay scales.

Some employers, because they can afford to, overcompensate financially but then there are no humane boundaries. It is imperative to specify working hours, lunch and rest breaks, public holidays, leave allowances, monthly salary or daily rates, overtime pay and travel allowances.

The absence of an employment contract with clear terms and conditions deregulates a vital working relationship. I hear bizarre conversations about "our Lizzy", "our garden boy/man", "our nanny" and so many other familiar terms of endearment which are blatantly condescending and cast the titled person into transparency.

These working relations involve demand and supply. The service providers are people first, they belong to communities, families, friendship circles, churches, choirs, committees and they are not a part of our family, unless they are cousins, siblings, nieces or nephews.

We have no more ownership over these employees than our bosses have over us. Language is key to communication. Do we look at the people we are talking to, do we say please and thank you? Our children hear us and follow our lead, even our body language. We should do them the favour of teaching social skills applicable to all. I have been privy to domestic workers being taken along on family holidays. They are working, it is not their holiday. If you paid for their ticket and accommodation, they do not work in the time to reimburse you. They must be paid for working while you are on holiday and they are away from their own families and young children.

Domestic workers, even though they are employed, are among the most vulnerable workers in society. They are easily replaced, they often don't have a voice for fear of losing their jobs, and they do as they're told to protect their employment. Many support their children through school, their aging parents, and unemployed relatives. If one person works they take on the burdens of the unemployed around them, it is their obligation and they do it with no grudge. This is a culture I am aware of, but I still don't understand it after hundreds of conversations.

There are so many assumptions, but if we take the time to put a personality to this employee, a general idea of their home and family situation, we learn what to be grateful for, we learn how many of these women work miracles, like the fishes and loaves, on the salaries we pay them.

Sunday's newspaper headline was about a "madam" and a "maid"; this conversation never goes away. We should open it up more often until we are all doing the right thing. In few places in the world do ordinary people have house help. Labour in South Africa is cheap, but that doesn't mean we have to be. Bread and milk costs us all the same. We pay for petrol, most domestics pay for unreliable public transport. They walk for kilometres from drop offs to reach our leafy suburbs.

But do we consider how this person finds their way to our homes, what happens to their children, how many people they support, whether they are dealing with any illnesses.

Many years ago, someone called to say our gardener was in a horrific accident. I panicked and asked after Sam, but the caller said he couldn't talk. He hung up as the doctor came to talk to him. We got ready to rush to the hospital as he said Sam was on life support. In that moment we realised we didn't know Sam's surname, his next of kin, his identity number or his residential address. I contacted the friend who had recommended him and asked if he knew how to get hold of Sam's family. He didn't, so he planned to meet us at the hospital. A few minutes later he called back to say Sam was not in an accident and he was at home. It was very confusing. While I was calling Sam, the original caller telephoned to say they needed us to transfer money so that Sam's wife could come as soon as possible. It was a scam. We later found out how many people had been fooled by this. I say that if we had been defrauded that night, the shame would have been on us.

We let people into our homes and we don't bother to know who they are. It takes time, trial and error to establish a workable relationship with someone in your space, but it is possible.

It's also possible to pay fairly and generously because we can. Many people do. It's possible to apply basic conditions of employment that guide how the relationship can work. Whether they can expect an annual performance bonus in the middle of December, and what the punitive actions are for any transgressions in the relationship. It is possible to know the minimum wage without paying it. It is possible to learn that Nkululeko means freedom, Lebugang means thankful, Charity does not mean Blessing and it is possible to call someone by the name their parents chose for them, even if it's easier to say Mildred, Princess or Gift.

Without our domestic goddess, I might have to clean and cook. She and I both know that would not be good. However, we can be good to her, and she can be good to us.

Aaah, levels of work. It all needs appreciation, compensation, starts and finishes. It's what keeps the home fires burning and the fireplace ash free.

Lisa Joshua Sonn is a social activist. Follow her on Twitter: _ @annalisasonn_

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