Sunday, 25 March 2012

Why servants?

Why devote a blog to depictions of domestic service? Isn’t modern domestic service just like any other kind of work? In the UK we don’t tend to employ unmarried, live-in butlers any more and so surely we have cleansed ourselves of the emotional and class-based difficulties of domestic service? Like the rest of us, nannies, maids, cleaners and au pairs sell their services in a depersonalized labour market. When the Guardian recently published this article popular comments included: "If one person wants to do [a job], and another person wants to pay them to do it, why wring your hands?"

But domestic workers today are still bound by expectations and regulations which do not apply to other workers. Just a few weeks ago the government announced that migrant domestic workers would no longer have the right to change employers once they enter the UK. This means that if a worker is abused or overworked she will have to stay with her employer or risk deportation.

Similarly, employers do not need to pay domestic servants the National minimum wage if they can prove that they treat their workers as ‘part of the family’ (this usually means giving them meals or allowing them their own bedrooms). Notably, servants do not have to agree to have their wages docked. The employer, not the worker, gets to decide whether he is exempt from normal labour laws, and he also gets to define the nature of ‘family’.

These factors indicate that there are continuities and discontinuities between the history of domestic work and the story today. On the one hand, domestic workers today are often migrant females, the result of globalisation.On the other hand, domestic workers continue to occupy a unique and precarious space, treated as both manual labourers and members of the extended family. The London-based charity Kalayaan, which campaigns on behalf of migrant domestic workers, states that “implying that women leave their own families for anything less than a fair wage is an insult.” A Philippine interviewee, Anna, agrees:

"Childcare is work. It's a big sacrifice. You don't experience your own children growing up. I remember when I went home I made my daughter fried eggs – I didn't know she only ever ate boiled eggs. I am their mother, but I am a stranger."

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