Field Research in South Africa
This summer, I was given the opportunity to dive back into the challenges of the emerging economy of my home country, South Africa. My research was focused on the cleaners of the successful on-demand cleaning services called SweepSouth, in Cape Town and Johannesburg.
My aim was to study how the cleaners’ interaction with the business affected their lives on a micro socioeconomic level. I conducted 90 one on one interviews, asking about indicators such as mean income, what capabilities those incomes do or do not afford the cleaners, and get an idea of what life is like, beyond those metrics. For example: women who make up the nation’s largest informal workforce, are often breadwinners for their family yet, they face adversities such as domestic violence, and having to develop innovative methods to handle and shield their children from abject poverty.
Through my interviews, I found out that a lot of women came from families that had been poor for several generations and did not have access to education that would enable them to acquire higher paying jobs. 87% of my interviewees who were under the age of 35 were working to save up for their own education or small businesses. Around 11% of the cleaners had higher qualifications to the level of college-level diplomas but reported not being able to find work at their skill level, thus had to resort to domestic work to make a living.
A significant finding from my research was that the benefits of the sharing economy for those who interact with it as service providers as independent contractors as opposed to “developed” economy was relatively more difficult to harvest. In the case of the domestic worker, there are a lot of costs in adjusting their work style to the on-demand model as opposed to how the work has been historically done, where a family and domestic worker agree to a working relationship that often lasts for years. In some instances, the domestic worker would live with the family they worked for. The benefits of the traditional work model includes stable operational costs, a reliable pre-agreed upon income and the comfort that comes with familiarity. In the sharing economy, particularly in the case of the SweepSouth cleaner, these cleaners worked at different places everyday and for different durations. Because the women had to organize their own transport to and from clients’ homes, they had to constantly adjust their transport budget. They also needed to fund their own phone data plans to use the app SweepSouth. In many other instances, assigning a section of the household budget in low income families to internet fees is largely viewed as a luxury, except for in the case of these cleaners, in which it was vital in being able to earn a living, thus turning what is a luxury to some into an investment.
Another major theme I researched was that of structural violence. Being a woman in one of the most dangerous countries in the global south in terms of rape and muggings mean is a daily risk. Tragically, I learnt of a woman who was raped on her way to work and another who witnessed a mugging while walking to the train station.
In conclusion, business models like Sweep South’s have a lot of potential to empower women like cleaners by giving them control of their hours and areas of work, thus allowing them greater freedom over other aspects of their lives such as taking care of family and getting their own education.