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The servant problem

Josie Foreman of Feminist Fightback asks those who see themselves as on the left to reconsider employing a cleaner.
9 June 2014

Something strange is taking place in my world. My friends are employing servants. These are not rich people by any means, but lower-middle class teachers, NGO types, trade union organisers and cultural workers. They are liberals and lefties. Often they are people living in a rented room in shared houses, since living alone in London nowadays is beyond most people’s means. But they can afford to employ cleaners.

I have to admit that I have a strong reaction to this – a mixture of self-righteous moralism and class rage which is not necessarily very politically useful and certainly rather unattractive. Yet I have two kinds of vested interest in this issue: firstly my mum worked as a cleaner, my dad still does, and I used to in my early twenties; secondly, I now write about and research the history of domestic servants, focusing on the nineteenth century when 1 in 3 women cleaned other people’s houses for a living. So I’m writing this article to try to dissect the overwhelming feelings that rise up in me when I hear about my friends employing cleaners – to trace the historical roots of this revulsion and to find out whether it can illuminate the political issues or whether I should just dismiss it as a self-indulgent persecution complex.

What I am sure of, however, is that this is not a trivial question. I do not think that wanting to scrutinise why people employ cleaners is an act of middle-class self-loathing akin to worrying that your friends spend too much money on their organic veg boxes. Because the global market in migrant domestic labour touches on an even wider problem – the problem of reproductive labour. As our sisters in the Wages for Housework and Women’s Liberation Movement pointed out, reproductive labour (cooking, cleaning, caring) ‘reproduces’ labour power and therefore capital by ensuring that people are well-fed, clean and emotionally stable enough to work each day for a wage. Many commentators have suggested that the present historical moment is one of a crisis in care, whereby much of the reproductive labour previously provided by the state (free school meals, old people’s home, childcare centres) are being cut and pushed back into the private sphere of the home.

What all this amounts to, therefore, is that we should not assume that people employ cleaners because they are lazy. The burden of reproductive labour placed on the individual household with all adults in full-time waged work is now immense. This is coupled with the fact that anyone lucky enough to be employed right now is expected to work excessively long hours and to bring work home with them. Many of my friends quite understandably claim that they don’t want to spend their one day off a week doing more work cleaning their house. For people who have children, the problem is intensified – domestic labour is boring and exhausting and takes up far too much of our precious free time.

So does this mean that employing a cleaner is a sensible solution to the crisis in reproduction? Someone gets a job and someone else gets a break? This is the justification given by many of my cleaned-for friends. Yet I believe the dilemmas and emotions awakened by the employment of cleaners extend far beyond this simple calculation, and have powerful material and historical implications for our ability to build solidarity with other human beings and create a different kind of world.

Employment rights and labour conditions

First off, let’s deal with the obvious: employment rights and working conditions. Things that the labour movement has fought for over the last two centuries disappear in the context of the employment relation of the home. The vast majority of people can only afford to employ cleaners because they are able to leverage their wage privilege over low-paid and mainly migrant workers. If, as many people claim, they are employing a cleaner simply to buy time, why then do they not pay them their own hourly rate? In fact, a quick straw poll among friends informs me that the average hourly rate for a cleaner is £10-15 per hour. This is in the East End of London where it’s hard to find a room in a house for less than £600 per month. Factor in travel costs and time getting from one two-hour job to another, and this amounts to far less than the London Living Wage of £8.55 per hour.

Moreover, very few employers pay sick pay and holiday pay, and if they do it is only for a limited period of time. Say your cleaner fell down the stairs and broke her leg? Would you pay her for two months while she was unable to work? Even more unlikely is the possibility of private employers paying into a pension fund, as any other employer would. In fact, only the very rich could afford to be ‘good’ employers of their cleaner.

But the employment relationship is about much more than wages and conditions. It is about the kinds of relationships we are able to form with the people around us and the ideas we have about whose work is valuable and whose is not. What happens in that moment of exchange when cash is handed over in return for a clean house? Firstly, a gendered and racialised division of labour is entrenched. The young professional admits that their time is too valuable to be spent cleaning toilets yet someone else’s time (most commonly a migrant woman’s) is of less value and therefore can be spent in this fashion for a fraction of one’s own hourly rate. Such attitudes are not the result of individual character flaws but reflect a well established pattern within our society whereby what is traditionally conceived as women’s work (work within the home) is viewed as non-productive work, as non-work, and is therefore devalued and low paid.

This division of labour exists all around us. Someone else pulls my own pints for me, serves me coffee, and dry-cleans my coat. We all live within the contradictions of capitalism and cannot avoid beneffiting from the low-waged work of another person in some sense. But is this a division of labour that I want to re-create and perpetuate in my own home? The direct, personal, one to one relationship between employer and cleaner brings with it a whole host of dilemmas which do not exist (or are at least drastically modified and moderated) within the commercial service sector.

What happens if your cleaner shirks her work, for example, do you rebuke her or do you stick to your belief that refusal of work is a good thing? How would your respond if your cleaner started to organise with other cleaners to demand higher wages? Would your support for trade unions extend to your own living room? How long would it take for you to start moaning to friends about ‘the cleaner’, or at least muttering to your partner about her? How far removed is this relationship from the nineteenth-century ‘servant problem’ whereby over-worked mistresses lamented the shortage of competent and committed servants?

These are questions that only really apply to people who see themselves as on the left, in favour of workers’ rights and a more equal society. But it is to these people – my friends, my comrades – that I am talking. The question of whether feminists should employ a cleaner is one hashed over again and again in both scholarly and popular publications, most recently in Caitlin Moran’s bestselling How to Be a Woman. Surveys have found that the most common reason for women with families to employ cleaners is to resolve rows about housework with male partners and children. (The same applies to the increasingly popular trend for a number of housemates to split the cost of a cleaner, neatly overcoming one of the key causes of disharmony in shared households.)

Bringing reproductive labour back to its political context

My problem with this is that it depoliticises the issue of reproductive labour. Work which has always been seen as drudge work, as the shit work, the work that no-one wants to do, remains just that. All the tensions and contradictions of advanced capitalism and the gendered relationships that it produces are not solved or even confronted, but shunted onto somebody else. Paying someone else to take on the work that your job leaves you no time to do merely enables your boss to work you harder. Hiring another woman to clean your bathroom because your husband never does it properly simply entrenches ideas about housework as pointless women’s work that made him so resistant in the first place. Getting a cleaner in for a couple of days a week so that you have more time to spend with your children does not force society or your employer to take work/life balance issues seriously.

Frequently the ‘should I employ a cleaner’ middle-class feminist dilemma is debated as if feminism is a lifestyle choice rather than a political positioning. Is having another woman clean my house compatible with my feminist beliefs? I would rather pose the question as ‘is it compatible with my political activity?’ For if the role of feminists is to build solidarity with other women, and to fight against the gendered division of labour, the devaluation of women’s work and the exploitation of female workers, then becoming an employer yourself puts you in an irreconcilable position. Hiring a cleaner places you on the opposite side of the dividing line with the very people you want to make solidarity with. This is not a question of morality but one of ethical strategy.

Examining domestic labour from a worker’s perspective

Let’s look at the problem from another perspective – that of the cleaner. My mum says that cleaning work was good work to do while her children were young as it could be fitted in around childcare. It also paid £5 an hour which was more than you earned working in Sainsbury’s or in a similarly unskilled job in the 1990s provinces . My dad argues that his work is not shit work but socially necessary work – essential to the smooth running of society – which indeed it is. Cleaning is work that needs to be done and someone has to do it.

This same problem bothered the Domestic Workers’ Union which was formed in London in 1908-9 by militant and feminist household servants. Aiming for domestic servants to be treated as workers like any other, they stressed the importance of their role. One of the union’s main organisers, Kathlyn Oliver, wrote:

'The entirely wrong conception of housework as menial work will be admitted by all thoughtful persons. Cleaning, rightly understood, is a necessary and therefore honourable occupation and unless we are prepared to deny the necessity of clean well-kept homes, there really is no more important work than housework. The health of our national life is dependent on our home life.'

At the same time, she argued that cleaning was ‘brutalising and deadening’ work and that only those women with no other choice would seek such employment: ‘I think there is no work which so crushes the soul out of everyone and tends to make them worms indeed’ she said.

Radical alternatives

The historical legacy of service in Britain is immensely powerful and its ability to structure employment relations in the home today should not be underestimated. Domestic work is stigmatised to a degree that is impossible to shake off simply by paying decent wages. The Domestic Workers’ Union , grappling with the problem of how to valorise domestic labour while also insisting that no one should have to submit themselves to it under current conditions, was eventually forced to conclude that domestic service should be reformed and transformed out of existence. The individual employment relationship between mistress and maid had to be drastically modified, meaning an end to live-in service whereby one family employed one maid, and the establishment of centrally located teams of servants who would move from house to house on a daily basis.

While this was a deeply subversive and radical vision in the early twentieth century, it did not overcome entirely the paternalistic and/or exploitative relationship between employer and employed, which after the First World War some feminists argued should be eradicated altogether by turning domestic workers into public servants employed centrally by the government.

However, I would go further than this to argue that if domestic labour and the job of the cleaner is to be sufficiently valued and de-stigmatised, then the division of labour itself needs to be challenged. While cleaning remains the job of one section of society and not the job of others, then it will remain low paid and devalued work. To insist that some people pursue cleaning as a profession is to condemn that group of people to a certain kind of subordinate status. Am I arguing then, for people to simply do their own housework? My inclination is to say yes, because I do not have children and I live in a house with three other adults where it is relatively quick and easy for us to keep our house in working order. But my housemate is disabled and cannot do her share so easily. Similarly, my friends who have kids find the amount of reproductive labour expected of them insurmountable or at least all-consuming.

Today’s liberal feminism may have given up on this conundrum, but feminists of the early twentieth-century and again in the 1970s insisted on the need to collectivise domestic labour so that each person spent of portion of their day carrying it out in public workplaces under good conditions. Whether we think this is a realistic demand or not – and I think it is a deeply necessary one – the first step is to make the problem visible. And this cannot be done if some people employ other people to wash the problem away.

Find out how to get involved with Feminist Fightback.



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