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Domestics: giving (dis)comfort to the rich

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The word "servant," with its uncomfortable overtones of snobbery and servility, is out of fashion. The world depicted by Downton Abbey seems far away. But domestic service is very much still with us — as scandals on both sides of the Atlantic highlight.

In Britain, the public has been fascinated by the case of the Grillo sisters, two personal assistants to celebrity chef Nigella Lawson and art dealer Charles Saatchi who were accused of racking up $1.1 million in personal spending on their employers’ credit cards.

Meanwhile, in the United States, fallout continues from the case of the Indian diplomat accused of circumventing minimum-wage laws to pay her housekeeper less than $1.42 an hour.

These cases may be at the extreme ends of the spectrum. In many ways, they aren’t representative of the 53 million domestic workers worldwide. Yet even typical relationships between employers and domestic workers — whose jobs may involve child or elder care, cleaning, cooking, driving, gardening, or security — are fiendishly complex and difficult to negotiate. And these tensions go back centuries.

Among the enduring questions is whether, and to what degree, domestic workers are part of the family.

In Britain, 17th- and 18th-century servants and masters customarily shared their space, even occasionally their bedrooms. It was the Victorians who reinforced the distinction, maintained into the 20th century, by instructing domestics to wear uniforms and introducing physical separation in the form of servants’ entrances, back stairs and basements. (The United States at that time relied on race and ethnicity as further means of separation.)

The relationship was familiar to the extent that servants weren’t supposed to knock upon entering a room. But that familiarity extended only to a point. Rosina Harrison started working as a lady’s maid to a young woman about her age in 1918. They became constant companions. Yet Harrison recalled: "We weren’t friends, though if she was asked today she might well deny this. We weren’t even acquaintances. We never exchanged confidences, never discussed people, nothing we said brought us closer; my advice might be asked about clothes or bits of shopping, but my opinions were never sought or given on her music or the people we met or on anything that was personal to either of us."

Relationships between employers and domestic employees are ostensibly far more relaxed today — but they are also more ambiguous. Employers often go to great lengths to include the nanny or the housekeeper in family events, and modern nannies may be on first-name, bathroom-sharing, space-jostling terms with their employers. But are they family? The forums on the website D.C. Urban Moms highlight the ambivalence. Posters helping their nannies find new jobs often recommend them on the basis of how well or how quickly they fit in with the family. Yet there are also posts by mothers expressing concern about nannies kissing their charges.

When Lawson and Saatchi took the Grillo sisters to court on fraud charges, they talked about being "very fond of them" and how "they were part of our family." The sisters were equally keen to say how much they loved them back. What in fact was exposed was a relationship marked by misunderstanding, unchecked bank statements and airily half-authorized spending on "treats" and "thank yous." A jury last month found in favor of the Grillos — one moral being that if you tell your employees they are part of your family, you shouldn’t be too surprised if they take you at your word.

Another source of the murkiness in the employer-employee relationship has to do with shifting attitudes toward the home and questions about the extent to which it is a legitimate workplace.

The modern conception of the home has its roots in the Industrial Revolution. Before the advent of designated places of work such as offices and factories, most work went on where people lived, whether they were farmers, shopkeepers or craftsmen. The further paid labor was removed from the home, however, the more home became defined as a haven from work.

Of course, that conception is changing once again. The home is increasingly an extension of the office, and technology makes the job only an email or a videoconference away.

The idea that the home isn’t, or shouldn’t be, a place of work explains some of the resistance to government regulation of domestic work. And it leaves employees vulnerable to exploitation. If the case of the Grillo sisters gives us a glimpse of the perils of faux-familiarity, then the realities of the Indian diplomat’s housekeeper are its harsh opposite — and a great deal more representative. Working as a servant in most parts of the world today looks more like $1.42 an hour than $8,000 spending sprees at Miu Miu.

The majority of domestic workers operate outside the formal economy for cash in hand. The International Labor Organization reports that "more than half of all domestic workers have no statutory limitation of their weekly working hours, [and] more than two out of five are not entitled to be paid a minimum wage." Greycoat Lumleys, a domestic-employment agency in London, told me that its clients typically ask employees to sign a waiver of the European 48-hour workweek, to allow "flexible working."

Attitudes toward the home may also go some ways to explain why professionals have trouble transferring their management skills to domestic-employment situations. "I’ve seen CEOs, heads of companies, professors," Lisa Spiegel, director of a family counseling center in Manhattan, told the New York Times. "These are women who are very successful in work relationships, but the idea of talking to their baby sitter about unloading the dishwasher will give them cramps for a week."

The result is that the home too often becomes a minefield of awkwardness, resentment and misunderstanding. It’s a picture not all that different from the one Celia Fremlin described after working undercover as a British domestic in the 1930s. Fremlin wrote of "fatuous and quite unnecessary agonies endured by both mistress and maid in a class society."

It hasn’t helped mitigate these tensions that the freedoms of middle-class women — to go to university, pursue careers and cultivate their inner lives — sometimes rely on the ability to find other people, usually working-class women, to take on the labor of the house.

Voltaire’s observation that "the comfort of the rich depends upon an abundant supply of the poor" holds as true today as it ever did. And rich countries depend on poorer ones. Many domestics leave their own families behind to find work. One Filipina housekeeper in London I interviewed said many of her friends would rather clean houses than look after children, because it broke their hearts to be reminded of the ones they hadn’t seen in years.

The modern home resembles the home of a century ago more closely than we may realize. Those science-fiction predictions of robotic servants and three-course meals in the shape of a single pill have not materialized. Dust still gathers, and floors still need mopping. Labor-saving technology doesn’t always save much time: Doing laundry by hand was arduous, but you generally did it only once a week.

Now, as in the past, we tend to underestimate the value of domestic work — and often fail to give it the dignity that it should be accorded.

 

Lethbridge is the author of Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain From the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times. She wrote this for the Washington Post.

 

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