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Faculty of Law | University of the Western Cape

Research Portal

Faculty of Law | University of the Western Cape


Cleaning Up : A sociological investigation into the use of outsourced housecleaning services

Resource title information

David du Toit (March 2020). Cleaning Up : A sociological investigation into the use of outsourced housecleaning services.

Further detail

Publication type
Academic journal articles
The nature of paid domestic work is changing. Where the shift from full-time, live-in and live-out, to part-time and temporary domestic work has been well documented in the literature, a new trend of domestic outsourcing is prevalent. People can contract out or outsource domestic or care duties to domestic service firms that render professional, tailored, and hassle-free services. A particular issue at hand is the outsourcing of cleaning through housecleaning service firms. Few studies have looked at this trend, but it appears that many people no longer employ a domestic worker directly, but through a housecleaning service firm that brings forth a different dynamic to domestic work. Professionalism, the standardisation of cleaning services, and numerical and functional flexibility are some of the changes it offers people using these services. International literature indicates that the use of housecleaning service firms is linked to reconciliation between work and family demands, especially since the rise of women in formal employment. Other factors show that state interventions through tax cuts are linked to the increased use of housecleaning services in some European countries. There is also a link between changing household sizes, and an ageing population that renders the need for domestic outsourcing. In South Africa, where the contracting in or employing of domestic workers is the norm among the middle-class, it is unclear why people use outsourced housecleaning services. The primary aim of this dissertation, is, therefore, to identify factors, which contribute to the use of housecleaning services in South Africa. From a theoretical perspective, feminism, maternalism, changes in work and employment patterns and life cycles are used to provide a deeper understanding into the use of housecleaning services. Using a mixed-methods design, I focused on three outsourced housecleaning service firms that render team cleaning under similar terms and conditions. By focusing on clients’ perspectives, the following factors were found to have an effect on the use of housecleaning services. Firstly, the broad benefits of using housecleaning services, which include high levels of professionalism, reliable and trained domestic employees, and a tripartite employment relationship that limits dependency and responsibility, was found as a particular reason why housecleaning services are used. Demographical and household characteristics profiles and life cycle patterns of clients also affect the need to use housecleaning services. It was found that clients of housecleaning services are mainly white and female, aged in their fifties. Clients also predominantly live in households with less than three members. Another finding reveals that a large percentage of clients have shifted from employing a domestic worker privately to hiring a housecleaning service firm. It was found that labour legislation and the underlying issues of a personal bipartite employment relationship contribute to the shift to housecleaning services. Finally, this study also looked at the disadvantages of using housecleaning services from current and former clients’ views and found that the loss of control, feelings of detachment and lack of consistency regarding cleaning were some of the issues for terminating the use of housecleaning services. In closure, a novel contribution of this study is that outsourced housecleaning services have been widely neglected in a context where domestic work is a major source of employment for thousands of black women in South Africa. By outsourcing domestic work to housecleaning services, not only are physical cleaning tasks outsourced, but also maternalism and emotional labour. This study shows that some people are no longer willing to have a relationship with the people who clean their homes and that they believe it is simply not worth the effort to maintain a relationship. The interaction between clients and domestic employees are stripped to the bare minimum. What this study ultimately shows is how race and class oppression is renegotiated in the domestic work sphere when domestic labour is outsourced to housecleaning services. The long-term effects of housecleaning services are far-reaching. By integrating a mix of qualitative and quantitative data, this study is one of the most comprehensive studies to date on outsourced housecleaning services in South Africa.

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