Domestic work is a grubby business. There is a huge, unseen workforce who do our mopping, cleaning and childcare. But this delegation of labour is not consequence-free
‘If you want to do well”, Virginia Bottomley told a conference at Inclusive Employers this week, “do not do your own ironing, do not bake a cake. Women do well in India because of domestic help”.
This was a conversation about how to get women into boardrooms, but there’s an inevitable follow-up question, isn’t there? What about the domestic help? Do they do well?
A spokesperson from Unison told me: “Look, people who do these jobs often don’t have a choice, their job prospects are zero, they’ve got no rights, they’ve got no protection, most of them don’t get any kind of holiday pay or sickness pay. It’s simply not good enough to say that’s the way for women to get out and work.”
This has been the liberal’s dilemma for some time now: is it OK to sub-contract all your domestic work? Obviously, from a Marxist point of view, it isn’t – we all make mess, we all have to eat, we all have to look afterchildren
if we have them. When some of us refuse to do any of that ourselves, others among us will end up doing all of it. And this has wider ramifications than just some people having to do a lot of mopping; cleaning and childcare
have very low status in this society and, I’m sure, many others.
Catherine Spencer is 41, has a degree, and used to manage 200 people. She now cleans her local primary school. “There’s a governors’ meeting – they were coming in as I was leaving this evening,” she says. “They see me in my little sky-blue tabard and they immediately think of me as a complete idiot. It amuses me, but I can see that someone else would be deeply offended.” Elodie Guttierez, 38, is a nanny – she is actually my nanny, and we’ll come to this later – and she concurs: “If you’ve got a group of people talking about what they do, when you say you’re a nanny, nobody asks you anything. They think, ‘Poor her, she’s just a stupid girl.’ A guy in the Groucho actually turned his back on me when I told him what I did.”
This delegation of labour is not consequence-free, in other words. On one side, the modern urban life is shaped by a particular economic view in which your work is a huge part of your identity. This credo of fulfilment by industry is actually not very realistic – it isn’t as stark as the idea that preceded it, historically speaking, where your worth was determined by your wealth and breeding. But in its way, it’s just as exclusive – in a world that believes your worth is your work, a lot of people aren’t going to feel very valuable. Second, there is this peculiarly low status accorded to household chores.
Adam Smith’s classic explanation was: how can you respect work that, once it’s done, instantly needs doing again? As he put it, “menial tasks and services … generally perish in the instant of their performance and seldom leave any trace or value behind them”. But that doesn’t quite do it for me – office cleaners do the same job, and may be held in the same low regard. But there isn’t the taint of shame. The novelist and poet Kate Clanchy wrote a book, Antigona and Me, about her Kosovan cleaner, and someone (a childless person; I think this is relevant) said to her: “I would never have a cleaner.” She remembers replying “But you do! Who cleans your office?”
Personally, I think the problem is a background belief that household work is women’s work – it’s shameful because we’re outsourcing not just our laundry, but the building blocks of our femininity. And there’s always some reason why the work of women is outside calculable value. If it’s dusting, it’s too trivial and evanescent for money; if it’s giving birth, it’s too important and lasting. It might be a systematic attempt, since the dawn of money as the unit of exchange, to keep women from having any independent agency in the market. Or it might be a coincidence.
Leaving the feminist dimension aside for a second, this presents a problem, doesn’t it? When, in the act of employing someone, you erode their standing in the world, that’s quite a complicated relationship. Stella McCartney told The Sunday Times Style magazine this week: “I have a housekeeper and a nanny, although I find that word jarring. I tell her, ‘I just want to call you a friend.'” That’s a typically nice-person response – she finds the word jarring because of the chasm of status it implies. But changing the word is insufficient. The chasm still exists; when someone at the Groucho asks her housekeeper what she does for a living, she’s not going to reply: “I’m Stella McCartney’s friend.”
There are less nice people who deal with this discomfort by simply pretending the person doesn’t exist. Eye-contact crops up again and again: Helen, a 37-year-old PhD student who cleaned for people when she was doing her BA, tells me about a woman who used to hold out the bin bag and not meet her eye. Someone else she worked for left her Filofax on the side one day: “And I thought, ‘I wonder what section she’s put me in?’ Am I under H, for my name, or am I under C for cleaner? And I was under C for cleaner. I was so offended. I don’t know why, but in the context of how she was treating me overall, it was as though I was less than human.” There’s obviously something very difficult about employing another human for work that is private – so employers attempt either to play down the employment, a la McCartney, or play down the human.
Or there’s a third way, which is to recast the domestic worker as someone with a very specific skill, which might not be very high-status but nevertheless isn’t universal, so it’s not something you could do yourself – like a ratcatcher or a handyman. For her book, The New Maids – Transnational Women and the Care Economy, Helma Lutz interviewed both cleaners and employers, and noted dryly: “Employers like to see their domestic workers as service providers; it is largely a form of exculpatory rhetoric which conveniently diverts the debate away from relations of power and dependence, since the (academically) educated upper-middle-class clients will usually know that they are not party to a legally safeguarded service-provider contract.”
People used to deal better with the political hazards of all this: my mother and father were with a cleaning agency in the late 50s, which specifically signed up people such as art students and unemployed actors – almost all men – so that you could get your cleaning done by someone who might need the money, but was part of the bohemian class, as well as the male hegemony. The act of picking up your pants wouldn’t disturb their place in the world, or sense of themselves. Myparents
worked for a couple who probably would have done their own cleaning, except that they were also fighting South African apartheid. I mean, if you want to be a liberal but you hate washing up, you can’t get much more copper-bottomed than that. However, here the bonds between Marxist theory and socially responsible practice really break down: if you’re so squeamish about the relations of power and dependence that you will only employ people in or above your own class, that, to the untrained eye, will look a lot like open snobbery. What if there’s a working-class person or a migrant or a single mother who is prepared to overlook the status anxiety because they could really do with the money? Are you still going to stick to your out-of-work actors agency then?
I feel theoretically guilty about having a nanny, but I don’t actually feel guilty. This is partly because Elodie is framed in my mind as a “service-provider”; that is, she does it because she’s better at it than I am. This is demonstrably true, and furthermore, anybody who thinks childcare is “menial” and therefore isn’t extremely demanding intellectually, physically and emotionally simply hasn’t done enough of it. Naturally, though, if I didn’t have a job I’d just have to get better at it. So there’s some exculpatory rhetoric going on there.
But there’s also a feminist point – I don’t see why it should be me outsourcing my maternal duties. We’re delegating our parental duties as a family
, and if I were to accept that all the guilt and shame from that act are mine, I would be effectively rolling back the crucial point offeminism
: that we’re as well suited to the workplace, and ill-suited to the home, in any proportion, as any given man. Cleaners are a bit different – the “service provider” case is hard to make, since even if you are useless at it, you’re presumably good enough to uphold your own standards. And it is boring; you can’t pretend to think someone else is feeling fulfilled by it. But the feminist case is even stronger here. Considering the huge advances made by women in the workplace, perhaps not with boardroom representation, but certainly with equal pay, it is astonishing that so little progress has been made domestically. The British Household Panel Survey looked at 5,000 families over 15 years and found that single men do four hours of housework a week, while single women do seven hours. But married and cohabiting women do 12 hours a week, and men suddenly do 40 minutes. This is not just about women having higher standards, in other words (I know I don’t); it is about a resolute failure to import principles of equality into the home. Many of us have commissioned out the conflict to someone in a (possibly metaphorical) sky-blue tabard.
The overwhelming downside of all this vexed morality and shame is that the entire business is chased underground and cleaners are treated appallingly. This is particularly the case when they’re migrants, especially those whose immigration status is uncertain. Two of the most lingering details of the rape accusation made against Dominique Strauss Kahn in New York last year were these: firstly, while the case collapsed for a number of reasons, the fact the alleged victim didn’t have proper residency especially harmed her credibility, certainly in the trial-by-media; uncertain immigration status redounds unimaginably badly upon your rights as an employee, and as a human being. Secondly, when fellow maids held a rally in New York, their stories threw up a snapshot of the contempt in which they are held. One woman remembered a hotel guest who’d put the “make up my room” sign up, but was sitting naked on a chair when she walked in.
A study in 2003 found there are European estimates that one in four domestic workers is employed illegally. A report on socio-economic conditions in Germany found that “the private household is by far the sector with the highest proportion of unprotected, illegal employment” – and there’s no reason, certainly no regulation, to make us think the UK is any different. People think of cash-in-hand work as getting one over on the tax man; domestic labour is an illustration of the fact that, when you are employed outside the legitimate tax system, the overwhelming likelihood is that someone else is getting one over on you.
You’re outside minimum-wage legislation, you have no job security, you have no holiday or sick pay; someone I knew whose cleaner came on a Monday used to discharge her without payment on bank holidays. Her rationale was that the cleaner didn’t pay national insurance contributions, so why should she get the benefit? It did not even occur to her that she wasn’t paying employer contributions, either.
Helma Lutz pans out to form a fascinating historical trajectory of domestic service – from a serf class three centuries ago, through the “professionalisation” of service two centuries ago when unions introduced some basic rights, contracts, days off, that kind of thing. After that, in the late-19th and early- to mid-20th centuries, men’s wives became all the domestic help they needed; and finally, the emancipation of women has taken domestic work back, not to that professionalised era, but to the era before it, when workers had no rights, no contracts under law, no career progression and no public visibility. Lutz wonders whether this amounts to a “refeudalization”.
In short, the first thing to do is to break the embarrassment of domestic help down into its constituent parts: it is one thing having a cleaner and feeling embarrassed about it, because you should be doing it yourself; it is another thing having a cleaner and feeling ashamed because you offer no job security and no holiday pay and no contractual equity of any sort. It’s all a bit of a fail, but you can always fail better.