For the past few months I’ve been receiving emails and SMSs from different service providers – from my medical aid to my manicurist – explaining how the recently-announced VAT increase would be impacting their prices.
In some instances, the increase will not change the price of their services as they’d been absorbed into the fee structure, while in others there was a 'regrettable but necessary increase' in what these services would cost me.
I’ve even seen notices up in coffee shops. As in any free market economy, whether or not I choose to continue making use of services that cost me more is entirely up to me.
But it seems not everyone has this same, simple approach to the economics of the cost of living. As I was plainly made aware of by Twitter user Liza Kaplan, who posted a perfectly professional letter she received from her gardener, Jethro stating that as of 1 April 2018, the fee for his gardening services would be increasing by 10% from R520 to R572.
Clearly outraged, Liza took to Twitter to solicit opinions from her followers. She posted a photo of Jethro’s letter with the caption:
“So this is what we received from our gardener who comes once a week to do the garden. What’s [sic] your thoughts? Talk about being opportunistic.”
What Liza and those like her who take to Twitter with their problematic views don’t seem to grasp is the power of coded language.
Had she simply stopped at “What are your thoughts?” there may have been room for the start of an interesting conversation around the VAT increase and its implications at different levels of the socioeconomic scale.
About how the cost of living has increased for all of us while our salaries remain mostly the same. And how we all have to re-evaluate our expenses to still afford them – or go without.
Instead, she took it a step further, referring to Jethro’s request as 'opportunistic'. As if he saw a chance to con her out of R52, and jumped at it.
We realise that only registered VAT vendors can charge VAT, but that certainly doesn't mean that Jethro is, in fact, an opportunist.
When approached for comment, Liza acknowledged that it was “quite funny to us as employers of this individual” for Jethro to “leverage off the VAT increase to request an increase in his remuneration”.
It is clear, coded in the original tweet, but more plainly stated in her response, that she doesn’t view Jethro as a service provider but rather as her employee who works for the wage she sets.
Jethro, in her view, should not have the implied cheek to write a letter like this – which further emphasises the rhetoric held by some South Africans that domestic work (mostly provided to them by black South Africans) should be a low-paid job that those providing the service should be grateful for.
The power dynamic is totally skewed in favour of the service user, often to the detriment of service providers who sometimes face higher costs to get to work than a day of work pays them.
According to Liza, however, she “did entertain the request” and has “increased his salary on top of the increase he received in January”. Liza went on to explain that Jethro “asked for 10% when VAT only went up by 1%”.
As one who only has a moderate understanding of the impact of percentage increases on real prices, I think Liza’s 'only' 1% may be very different from the impact of that 1% on Jethro’s cost of living.
It is indicative of our relationship with domestic labour, with its fraught racially-charged history in South Africa, and the perpetuation of social and structural inequality in a country that has the biggest gap between rich and poor in the world.
In this 'you should be lucky to be employed' economic climate, people like Jethro are expected to be so grateful to have an income of any description that they must take what is given to them with a smile. Regardless of whether it is a living wage or not.
If we continue to view the people who provide these services in our homes as 'working for us' and not 'providing a service', we allow no scope for entrepreneurship and its power to change people’s circumstances.
Jethro clearly takes his work seriously enough to send a formal letter like he did and, should he be met with the same professionalism from his clients, could lay the foundations for expanding his gardening services business.
The problem with an unregulated industry like the domestic labour market in South Africa, is that often there is very little recourse for service providers.
While a living wage is an economic requirement (and in my view, a moral obligation - particularly in unregulated spaces like this where it is often up to the employer to benchmark the wage), it is not mandated or enforced.
Very few domestic service users will sign contracts with their service providers. And, unlike more formal working agreements, things like annual leave and deductions for the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) contribution are not negotiated due to a the informal nature of the industry as we know it.
Domestic work is not viewed as a chance for upliftment. Instead, it is seen as a last resort for the unskilled and desperate who are marginalised and taken advantage of by those they work for.
We are a country built on the backs of slave labour; underpaid migrant labour; of black women leaving their families to clean for and tend to wealthier families in suburban South Africa.
The problem persists because, given the education deficit that usually sits in the labour pool for domestic labour, most service providers don’t know that they are well within their rights to up their rates and to negotiate around new economic pressures facing them.
Given that skewed power dynamic, the fear of being told they no longer have a job can often be a deterrent to asking for their due.
Liza, the self-proclaimed 'social media addict', has neither removed the post, nor responded to the 684 replies the tweet has received to date. Either because she stands by her view that Jethro is being opportunistic, or because the backlash of suddenly deleting problematic views may prove worse.
(I wonder if she might post about her outrage when she receives an 'opportunistic' letter from her bank when they increase their fees too)
Or perhaps because she hasn’t seen them, as she said she '"didn’t receive much comment on Twitter”. According to Liza, friends on Facebook felt that they were underpaying Jethro, but she pointed out that “they did not know that he works 12 hours a month for us - once a week for less than half a day”.
The shaming she received for the amount she is currently paying Jethro would be enough to send me into a social media hiatus. Perhaps she’s waiting for the storm to blow over, but it hasn’t stopped her from tweeting about other things as if this particular tweet never happened.
In the meantime, it seems sharing her view on Jethro’s letter may have been to his benefit, as the replies to this tweet are peppered with people asking for his details and offering him employment - impressed by his professional approach to an economic reality.
Disclaimer: The views of columnists published on W24 are their own and therefore do not necessarily represent the views of W24.
*Update - On publishing this piece, we have been made aware that Liza Kaplan has since deactivated her Twitter account*
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