Maid to last

Maids are an essential part of their madams' world.

They cook, clean, take care of the kids and dogs, change bed sheets, wash cars and God knows what else and yet most of them are not treated well.

Qaqamba Klaas, managing director of Intsika Business Consulting, a human resources consulting company in Eastern Cape, says though South African legislation entitles full-time domestic workers to a 45-hour work week, overtime pay, sick leave, maternity leave and two weeks paid leave every year, most employers do not follow the law.

Helen Mahlangu, a 58-year-old domestic worker, worked for an employer for more than seven years before she quit and started doing housework. She said black employers are the worst employers. They do not follow the legislation because the Labour Department does not have enough inspectors to handle all the complaints from domestic workers, she said.

She said she decided to leave her job as a full-time live-in domestic worker because "I was literally a slave".

"I used to wake up before everyone else, cook, bath and dress the kids, wipe the car, serve breakfast and do other things and I was the last one to go to bed. I literally ran my employer's household. But despite this, my generosity was barely acknowledged. I earned R450 a month."

Mahlangu said she had little time for herself. She was not allowed to take leave or weekends off.

"My madam used to tell me that if I go, I should never return. I decided to call it a day when she accused me of stealing her money. After cursing me, she later found it and did not apologise. When I resigned after working for all those years, she only gave me my month's salary and said 'goodbye'."

Josephine Ncube, an illegal Zimbabwean, is also employed by a black employer. She said though she finds working for black South Africans better than for whites, blacks are very stingy.

"They treat you like a human being but their wage leaves a lot to be desired. They feel they are doing you a favour and they forget that you are also rendering an important service for them. The only thing keeping me in this job is good treatment."

Klaas says low wages are apartheid hangovers. She says with no official documents, immigrant domestic workers are often exploited.

"Domestic helpers have for centuries been at the bottom of the social structure. Maids are usually associated with poverty, illiteracy and submission. In many cases it is difficult to differentiate between working as a maid and domestic slavery."

Be that as it may, domestics have to meet their employers halfway.

Dress suitably

Some domestics go around the house with only a towel wrapped around their waists. While natural, such behaviour needs to be toned down with the presence of a stranger in the house and of the madam's hubby.

Maintain an open communication channel with your madam

"If there is anything you feel uncomfortable about, instead of gossiping and sulking, let the employer know," says Klaas.

"Talking about your madam to strangers, her friends, her children or her family members is a no-no. You are not there to interfere in her business but to assist her and to make a living."

Improve yourself

"Study, study study. Get a driver's licence. Strive to improve yourself. Finish your high school education or enrol for a computer course. Most madams are willing to help if you show willingness and drive," says Klaas.

You must be close to your employer but also keep an employee/employer relationship.

Klaas advises domestics to never get romantically involved with their madam's husband.

"This is the most unwise thing you can possibly do. If you do, you will, more than likely, regret it for the rest of your life."

Be fun and be good company

"Laugh, share jokes and do fun activities such as playing cards and games at leisure time. Kids must enjoy your company. Do not be nice only in front of the parents."

Help with minor maintenance on the house

"Employers appreciate help in maintaining small things in the house like a blocked sink or fixing a broken toy for a child."

Never steal, be lazy, moody or disobedient

Ask if you want something. Do your work because that is what you are employed for and obey the rules of the employer.

Don't let people into the house when your madam is out

"Some domestics bring in their boyfriends and family members to eat and some have sex in the house. These are dismissible offences," Klaas says.

Do eat some food in the house but do not be greedy. "Things such as dried fruit, cheese, sweets and alcohol are usually strictly out of bounds."

Be clean

Bath and brush your teeth.