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Work from home reserved for the privileged few in SA

- Ruth Castel-Branco, Sandiswa Mapukata and Edward Webster

Digital divides ensure that only 11% of households have access to the internet.

Working from home is not new. Until the industrial revolution, most economic activities took place within the household. With industrialisation, the household remained a site of production, and employers outsourced tasks to homeworkers under the putting-out system.

The problem for the employer was the lack of control over the pace of work. The factory emerged as the solution; workers now had to travel to the factory and clock in. Though production became spatially separated from reproduction, they were tightly interlinked. As time became a commodity, the early struggles of factory workers were over the length of the working day.

Of course, in Africa, where 90% of workers are in the informal economy, factory work was always the exception. Though SA is comparatively more industrialised, home-based work remained widespread. Today, home-based workers are spaza shop owners, hair salon operators and outsourced textile workers. They are also crowd workers who use online platforms to connect with customers. And they are teleworkers in clerical, professional and managerial positions.

With the Covid-19 pandemic, home-based work has become pervasive. The shift enabled companies to continue to operate and workers to be paid. It also allowed for greater flexibility and more time with family. But working from home also poses risks including a return to task-based work, characterised by low and irregular income and benefits; an increased burden of paid and unpaid care work, particularly for women; and the risk of gender-based violence.

Ultimately, the ability to work from home is mediated by underlying structural conditions, including the nature of the labour market, the availability of affordable housing, and the accessibility of digital technologies. Across Africa, access to mobile phones, financial services and the internet reflect broader patterns of socioeconomic inequality between and within countries.

For instance, in SA more than 80% of the population has access to a mobile phone. In Mozambique this figure is just more than a third. Access to cellphones is highest among men in urban centres and lowest among women in rural areas, though the degree of inequality varies. In SA, for example, men are 4% more likely to have cellphones than women, whereas in Mozambique the gender gap is as high as 14%.


When it comes to access to mobile banking and financial services, more SA women have access (70%) than SA men (68%). This runs counter to trends across Africa and may be due to the expansive nature of social grants, weighted towards women, which highlights the importance of government policy in bridging the digital divide.

Disparities are even larger when one looks at internet usage. In SA, 56% of the population has access to the internet. Men are 7% more likely than women to have access to the internet. However, if one looks at coverage at the household level, 11% of households have access. Though SA has higher levels of internet coverage than most countries on the continent, access to the internet is concentrated in a minority of households.

Unequal access to mobile phone and internet services prevents workers from meaningfully participating in online-based remote work. According to a survey conducted by Research ICT Africa, reasons for the digital divide include the exorbitant cost of mobile phones and data, inadequate network coverage and access to electricity, users’ limited literacy, and gender norms that discourage women from using cellphones.


The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that less than 10% of SA can telework from home. It is still unclear how long the Covid-19 crisis will last. If working from home is to become a “new normal” states will have to invest resources in inclusive digital infrastructures. It will also be essential to ensure that home-based workers’ labour and social rights are protected. These include the application of the prevailing minimum wage, the correct employment classification and opportunities for career progression, freedom of association and collective bargaining rights, and the provision of social security benefits and maternity protection.

Of course, the nature of home-based work varies. Some workers are self-employed, others self-employed but dependent on intermediaries, and yet others effectively employed, even if the employment relationship is disguised as a commercial one. Concerned with the lack of regulation of home-based work the ILO extended worker rights to all home workers in 1996 (Convention 177).

Data on the scope, size and conditions of home-based work in SA is still minimal. However, if the Covid-19 crisis continues, home-based work may well become the next terrain of worker struggle.

The authors are researchers on the Future of Work(ers) project at Wits University's Southern Centre for Inequality Studies. This article first appeared in Business Day.