Publikation Geschlechterverhältnisse DEMAND FOR PAID DOMESTIC WORK

Beitrag zur Tagung: Arbeitsverhältnisse im Kontext von "Diaspora, Exil, Migration" vom 5. bis 7. April 2002 in Berlin





März 2001


Nur online verfügbar

Speak to any recently arrived, undocumented female migrant in the European Union, and the likelihood is that she is working in domestic or sex work. This word of mouth is supported by the statistics. Throughout Europe there has been a substantive increase in demand for private domestic services. In the UK for example, a survey by the research group Mintel shows that the amount spent on household workers has gone up from £1.1 billion in 1987 to £4.3 billion in 1997. A significant proportion of these workers are non-citizens - though precisely what proportion is impossible to say, but the importance of domestic work as a sector in legalisation data is notable (Groenendijk, K and Hampsink R 1995; Marie 1984). My own work reveals that while paid domestic labour is not the exclusive provenance of third country nationals, when domestic work in private households is performed by citizens of the country their work is often professionalised: they work as nannies, cooks, carers etc with specialist qualifications, job descriptions, and career structures. In some states, particular the UK, Spain and Greece, older working class women may work as daily cleaners, but only very rarely do they live in. Domestic workers who are non citizens on the other hand do a wide range of non-specialised tasks, so, for example, not "nannying", but taking care of children, doing domestic chores, shopping, cooking etc at the same time.

At first sight the increase in demand for domestic workers seems demographically and quantitatively measurable. Women's participation in the labour market has been rising across Europe, with women remaining in the labour market after marriage and returning to it soon after the birth of children (Rubery 1999). But there is a desperate shortage in publicly funded service for children, and the majority of those women remaining in the labour market following the birth of their first child are having to make private provision. And it is not only children who need to be supported. The population of Europe is ageing and at the same time as this demographic change, European states are pursuing policies of care in the community, not just for older people but for others with special needs such as the mentally ill. This is at a time when there are fewer women at home, and when marriage breakdown and geographical mobility are making kinship obligations, insofaras they ever existed, more and more difficult to enforce. As there are declining numbers of younger female citizens who are moreover increasingly unable or unwilling to provide unpaid care for the elderly, the young and the disabled, it is individual migrant women who are filling the gap.

But domestic work is not only about "caring". Now while a middle class woman might have to employ someone to care for children or elderly parents should she want to go out to work she does not have to employ someone to do the household chores. We do not HAVE to live in tidy, dusted homes nor wear ironed clothes in the same sense in which we do have to have our children cared for. The confinement of tasks to those merely necessary to survive with the minimum level of hygiene would enable most productive workers to service themselves. But maintaining a middle class European home is time consuming, and life-style requirements, and the requirements of servicing a professional job (where clients or conference goers might not tolerate a crumpled suit) only make it more so. Domestic work is reproductive work, and reproductive work is not confined to the maintenance of physical bodies; people are social, cultural and ideological beings, not just units of labour. Reproductive work, mental, physical and emotional labour creates not simply labour units, but people. Domestic work therefore may be seen as having two interrelated functions: it is necessary work in that without domestic work humanity would not continue. We need to accommodate the raising of children, the distribution and preparation of food, basic cleanliness and hygiene, in order to survive individually and as a species. But domestic work is also concerned with the reproduction of life-style, and crucially, of status - nobody has to have stripped pine floorboards, hand-wash only silk shirts, dust-gathering ornaments, they all create domestic work, but they affirm the status of the household, its class, its access to resources of finance and personnel. These two functions cannot be disentangled. To take the example of clothes washing, even at the most basic level one could argue that this is not really necessary for survival, but most people across cultures would agree that stinking clothes can constitute an offence to human dignity, but then exactly how often they are washed, whether they are ironed etc can quickly become issues of status. The organisation of our homes and their accoutrements then demonstrates our position within wider social relations.

There is, then, no total amount of housework that can then be divided up fairly between equal partners. Moreover, as reproductive work is concerned with the social and cultural reproduction of human beings, the actual doing of the work - who does it, when and where - is a crucial part of its meaning (Romero 1992). More than a reflection, it is an expression and reproduction of social relations, and in particular of relations between genders. Studies in the UK have shown how many middle class heterosexual couples employ a cleaner on the birth of children, thereby averting gender and generational conflict over domestic work is averted (or transferred to relations between female employer and female worker). It also means that middle class women have the time to devote to children and husband, the "quality time" we are led to believe is so important to children's development, and to the companionate marriage. In effect it enables middle class women to take on the role of woman as moral/spiritual support to the family and frees her from the role of woman as servicer, doer of dirty work. The employment of a paid domestic worker facilitates status reproduction not only by maintaining status objects, but also by serving as a foil to the lady of the house. As with service work, as McIntosh puts it the person is "as important as the task".

Domestic work, whether cleaning or caring, remains women's work when paid for. But it is not work for the "woman of the house", but for a different kind of woman. The female employer must differentiate between herself and the type of woman who does the dirty work, and both class and racialised/ethnic identities are a means of so doing. So it is not only gendered, but class and "racial"/ethnic identities that are reproduced through household labour. As different meanings are assigned to different jobs, so notions of what is appropriate in terms of gender and race are played out and the identities of workers and employers are confirmed. So the employment of a migrant domestic worker enables the expression and reproduction of the proper role of racialised groups and their proper relations to European households as servers, doers of dirty work that citizens are too important to do. When the worker is charged with looking after children these identities are quite literally reproduced. As a Filipina in Athens described:

"I heard children playing, they are playing house. The other child said, 'I am a Daddy', the other child said, 'I am a Mummy', and then, 'She is a Filipina'. So what does the child mean, even the child knows or it's already learning, that if you are a Filipina you are a servant inside the house."

So racism/classism is at the heart of paid domestic labour. When one asks, why migrant domestic workers? The answers are complex - Avoidance of tax and national insurance on its own does not explain the proliferation of migrants in this sector. Neither does their "cheapness". Despite the relatively high wages of Polish workers in Berlin, they still account for a significant proportion of domestic workers. Filipina workers are the most "popular" in Athens, and they are also the most expensive. It's partly about availability - a migrant woman has left her family far behind, unlike a citizen she will not be able to take time off from work e.g. if her own children are sick. But it is also about racism. Briefly I want to give you two reasons why I think this is so - though there are far more of course. Firstly, while the work done by mdw is crucial to European economies and societies, quite frankly they wouldn't be able to function without the caring jobs in particular that mdw do, some of the work is not at all like this, indeed some of it is humiliating and degrading. Fe's instance of a woman who had to clean a dog's anus after it defecated has stuck in my mind, or the women in Greece who had to flush the toilet after their employer. These are extreme examples, but there are many more cases where the work is unnecessary, almost as if it was invented for the worker to do - polishing the baby's pushchair, filleting the fish and putting it back together for perfect presentation on the plate…..I'm sure you can think of many examples. Why should anybody do this? What is the point of these tasks? To make the employer look good. But why do they not do it themselves? Because this is not the kind of work that anyone with a choice would do. (And it's worth saying that it is the kind of work that mail order brides and women with abusive partners often have to do). It is work that shows the employers status, their wealth, their position, and the workers powerlessness.

"We were three Filipinas, she brought us into the room where her guests were, she made us kneel down and slapped each one of us across the face" (Healy 1994:42).

It is confirming the power relations between migrants and citizens, between men and women, and racism and sexism are intimately bound up with this. Kalayaan, the London based migrant domestic workers' support organisation, keeps annual statistics detailing the kinds of difficulties faced by workers they interview. These are more or less constant year to year: so in 1996/7 for example, of the 195 workers registered, 84% reported psychological abuse, 34% physical abuse and 10% sexual abuse. Fifty four per cent were locked in, 55% did not have their own bed, and 38% had not regular food.

Secondly, there is a racist hierarchy that operates in the employment of migrant domestic workers. I first became aware of this when doing research in different European cities. We held meetings of mdw of different nationalities to talk about living and working conditions, and even the workers themselves were surprised at the wage differentials. We can see it in Kalayaan. Employers phone up and want a particular nationality. Some nationalities find it easier to get work than others, some are paid more. The hierarchy varies from state to state, and also within households, but generally you will find that African and Muslim women are paid less for longer hours than Filipinas in particular. This divide and rule tactic of employers is not usually a conscious strategy. Often they are acting out their own racist fantasies "I want a Haitian because they are smiley". How do you know they are smiley? Because my last worker was a smiley Haitian. But it is very important to organising work that this racism is challenged and not tolerated, because while certain groups at the top of the pecking order seem to benefit, in the end racism in general, and in this instance in the domestic service sector, degrades us all.

Organising What are the implications of all this for organising work? Kalayaan has always placed great emphasis on domestic workers as workers, that formed the basic principle of our campaign for legalisation and review of the immigration status accorded migrant domestic workers. You can see what happens once you let this go with the au pair system in Europe. I want to stress that I do think that contract, treating domestic workers as workers is important. In my activist role I do a lot of work with trades unions, lobbying and organising work premised on this, and contracts bring real benefits to a marginalised sector. But because I am with friends I want to be open and say that as a long term solution it poses problems - or perhaps they are challenges. And though I haven't got time to go into it here, there are also important parallels with other service sector industries, so there are broader issues here. And there are parallels too with the discussion around prostitution too.

For the moment I'm going to continue to use the rather crude and unsatisfactory caring/cleaning distinction, because I think they throw up different issues with relation to contract. One problem is that the idea of caring work challenges our understanding of "labour power" as something that is distinct from personhood: are we paying simply for the physical labour of care, leaving the emotional labour of care to those who are genetically linked to the cared for? But this physical caring requires face-to-face interaction which when repeated on a daily basis almost inevitably develops into a relationship. Indeed this personal, emotional relationship is often the reason parents will choose for example to have a nanny in the home rather than send a child to daycare. But if we allow that we are also paying for the emotional labour of care ("Sometimes when they say to me that I should give her lots of love, I feel like saying, well, for my family I give love free, and I'm not discriminating, but if it's a job you'll have to pay me") then is money enough? Caring work requires human beings to do it, but in so doing the worker is expressing and forming human relationships and community, yet her caring brings with it no mutual obligations, no entry into a community, no real human relations, only money. So a worker who has cared for a child over many years, who has spent many more hours with her than her 'natural' mother, has no right to see the child should the employer decide to terminate the relationship, because she is paid. Money expresses the full extent of any obligations to her.

Implicit in regarding contract as a positive development is the notion that domestic work is socially valuable. Now certainly this is possible to argue with caring work - changing an elderly person's incontinence pads is important and socially valuable, though not perceived as such, but it is more problematic with cleaning and domestic chores. There is a wide spectrum of course, and cleaning is often part and parcel of caring - so tidying up for a disabled person, can be constructed as socially valuable. But many of the workers I speak to do work that cannot be so constructed - having to wipe a dog's anus after it has defecated, or, less extreme, dusting light-bulbs. These are jobs that no one with a choice can do. The servicing of life-styles that would be difficult, if not impossible to sustain, would the other household members attempt to do the work themselves, and which, had the household members to do it themselves, they would probably not want to sustain, is an important component of paid domestic work. In terms of work performed they often do tasks that it is unlikely that any woman with a choice would be prepared to do. By emphasising the social value of domestic work we risk creating hierarchies, honouring those who provide care, maybe professionalising it and thereby making it inaccessible to undocumented migrants, leaving those who service life-styles at the bottom, vulnerable and disregarded.

This rather challenges the tendency there has been amongst feminists to see domestic work as the great leveller, a common burden imposed on all women equally by patriarchy. For, as I outlined, domestic work expresses status, power and social relations. Such status-enhancing "work" can be extreme, to the extent that workers seem to function as an opportunity for employers to exercise their power: cleaning the floor three times a day with a toothbrush, standing in the same position by the door for hours etc (Anderson 1993 and 2000). Those workers in the weakest position in the labour market, undocumented migrants for example, cannot draw boundaries and refuse work they find demeaning, they do not have the power. This power may also be exercised by employing people as a favour. A place in a European home is often seen as a kindness, a charity, maybe even a chance to demonstrate feminist solidarity. Through kindness and charity the powerful woman asserts her feminine qualities of morality and pity over the helpless recipient. A migrant woman, particularly an undocumented migrant woman has far fewer responses available to her when she has power exercised over her, either through violence or through kindness.

So self-organising is particularly important in domestic work. Kalayaan came from a group originally composed of mdw and activists, but it became clear - without all this theoretical stuff, just on the ground! - that it was important to separate the two. Waling Waling, the organisation of mdw, now has some 4,000 members of 30 different nationalities - and in this respect it is very unusual, and I think important, because migrants are unusually organised around employment, not around country of origin. Most are members of TGWU trade union - I can talk more about this in the discussion. Kalayaan, the supporters and activists have a specific role using our skills and positions - campaigning and lobbying work, but this is informed by the mdw on our management committee. (We are not on Waling Waling's management committee). It is important to recognise the contradictions organising domestic workers poses to unions as many households, including those of political activists, rely on the labour of a domestic worker. This shouldn't be dismissed as a minor point. When I met the President of the South African Domestic Workers Union in 2000 she told me how ANC employers can be exploitative as any other, and described how cabinet members would phone her up on the basis of old times in the struggle asking "Comrade, I need someone to work in my home". "Not comrade", she retorts, "that was before. Now you are an employer". Similarly while at a session discussing domestic workers and their rights in the European Parliament, I was struck by how many of the speakers referred to their personal experiences with "their" domestic worker, yet how unacknowledged was the contradictory nature of interests at play, since politicians are also employers of domestic workers. It's a tough issue for middle class women to deal with, for it forces us to confront our privilege, we cannot escape the knowledge that we are woven into, and benefit from, oppressive and exploitative structures.

Ways forward

While caught in such academic dilemmas, domestic workers are being raped, abused, exploited and even dying. So we must do something more than agonise. Here are some suggestions:

  • contract, and its implementation for all its shortcomings, has a role in preventing current abuses. It gives visibility to domestic work, recognises domestic workers subjecthood, and for migrants can be a basis for a work permit. It challenges the notion that they are part of the family. It has a role thought it is not the answer.
  • men, children and women should be encouraged to service themselves, and taught domestic skills. This entails recognising the dignity of domestic work.
  • the "public" needs to recognise the existence of the private: creches at workplaces for old and young; washing machines in our places of work; being scruffy as a political statement!
  • we need to work with integrity. To be unafraid to recognise that we are woven into grotesquely unjust structures that privilege certain groups over others, and certain groups of women over others. Those privileged by them have a special responsibility to struggle against them, but must also be humble enough to recognise the limitations of our struggle and that we cannot escape privilege.
  • support the struggles of domestic workers, their political organising and empowerment, while at the same time, helping those people who want to be able to move out of domestic work out of it.
  • make sure theory and practise are intertwined and inform each other, to help us develop out of the limits and contradictions of liberalism.