Domestic Labour’s Digital Transition


MADRID, SPAIN - OCTOBER 14: In this photo illustration the new smart phone taxi app 'Uber' shows how to select a pick up location at Atocha Station on October 14, 2014 in Madrid, Spain. 'Uber' application started to operate in Madrid last September despite Taxi drivers claim it is an illegal activity and its drivers currently operate without a license. 'Uber' is an American based company which is quickly expanding to some of the main cities from around the world. (Photo by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)

South Africa’s major metropoles now have at least two digital intermediaries trying to Uberise domestic work, the country’s single largest source of employment.

However, they represent a minute fraction of the country’s roughly 1 million domestic workers. This has not stopped SweepSouth and Domestly from securing the backing of high-profile venture capitalists and angel investors.

And the two cleaning services are about to spread their wings out of their home base, Cape Town.

SweepSouth will launch in a third city, Durban. Domestly, the younger of the two, is still bedding down in Johannesburg and Pretoria.

The minimum requirements for joining these services as a worker are similar and include speaking and reading English, as well as prior experience and acceding to background checks.

Despite their similarities, the two represent subtly different strategies to the inevitable growth of digital intermediation in South Africa’s enormous informal labour market.

Domestly, launched in September 2015, has about 500 cleaners signed up, the vast majority of whom are still in Cape Town, said co-founder Thato Marumo.

The subscriber base is 5 500, of which many would be infrequent users and others weekly or biweekly users, he told City Press.

SweepSouth has 1 500 cleaners signed up, with 10 000 applications in the pipeline, said co-founder and CEO Aisha Pandor. Its client base also runs into the “thousands”.

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“We are now doing seven-figure revenue a month, whereas a year ago it was five figures. We are also paying out more than 1 million SweepSouth cleaners a month,” said Pandor.

According to Marumo, Domestly’s major innovation is a design that upends the traditional asymmetry of power in domestic work, where workers usually have little chance of setting their own conditions of employment.

Historically, workers have been told “when to show up and how much they will earn”, said Marumo.

But those signing on with Domestly can set their own rates for either a four-hour half day or an eight-hour full day. Domestly levies a 25% charge on top of whatever that ends up being, so if a worker sets their rate at R200, the client using the app will get billed R250.

Marumo thinks the Domestly model, where the company does not directly set rates, is a more disruptive innovation than what rival SweepSouth has introduced.

SweepSouth has a set rate of R38 an hour, of which R8 goes to the company.

Pandor told City Press that this rate would be updated soon.

Backing up his claim that Domestly was a more fundamentally disruptive model, Marumo said: “If you book and dispatch with standardised earnings, you are mimicking how domestic work has functioned. We do not book and dispatch, but let the cleaners set their rates and let the market play itself out.”

While avoiding directly setting wages, Domestly does set parameters and “educates” cleaners on what kind of rates are prevalent in particular areas.

No one can charge less than R170 for a full day, or less than R120 for half a day.

This effectively sets a floor for Domestly’s charge at R30 a transaction – while also preventing the labour market that has been created from entering a race to the bottom.

The highest rates some workers are managing to charge through the platform is R330 for a full day, said Marumo.

“We manage demand and supply on a micro level,” said Marumo.

There is a waiting list to get onto the platform and the point is not to flood any particular geographic area with workers.

This model guards against legal developments around the definition of employment – a global conundrum being brought to the fore by the rapid expansion of online transport network Uber and other digitised labour markets.

Uber, in particular, is facing challenges about whether its “driver-partners” are not simply employees entitled to the legal protections that come with that.

By not dictating wages, Domestly seems to sidestep one of the major tests of employment.

Before launching, co-founders Marumo and Berno Potgieter sought legal advice and spent a small fortune on getting law firm Werksmans to scrutinise the model to ensure that no implicit contract of employment was being created.

South Africa’s informal labour market could provide other readily digitised forms of job-seeking.

“The core vision is to bring in new services. We want to see what other services make sense,” said Marumo.

Gardening or baby-sitting might work, he speculated.

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