The institution of paid domestic labour produces cleanliness, meals and childcare, but it also produces and reproduces an unequal home and society.

The big winner at the Screen Actors Guild Awards on Sunday night was The Help, a film about the relationship between African American maids and their employers in 1960s Mississippi. The film, and the book on which it is based, is well-meaning, but both patronising and sentimental. Critics see it as a nostalgic feel good experience (“we were so racist then but we are so much more evolved now”) for contemporary white Americans, while ignoring the inequality between employers and domestic workers in the U.S. today. But it raises some important issues for those of us who live in servant-keeping societies. It is a reminder of the peculiar nature of inequality in the intimate environment of the home.

The domestic worker

Studies show that numbers of domestic workers in any society rise with level of inequality. What this means is that in order for this occupation to flourish, there have to be people desperate enough to do the work that no one else wants to do, and people well off enough to pay them for the work they don't want to do. Thus domestic workers occupy one of the lowest rungs in the social hierarchy, have little or no dignity of labour, and are exploited in both everyday and egregious ways.

But domestic workers are unlike any other kind of worker precisely because they work in other people's homes. The site of their work, in the very heart of the household and family life, erases the usual divide between home and work, and places workers in a position of caring for a home and children that are not theirs. In the home, one person's refuge from labour is another's site of labour, one person's space of privacy is another person's public arena. There is spatial intimacy yet vast social distance.

In India

Because of the long history of servant employment in India, we often do not reflect upon the institution — or if we do, it is to wish that servants these days were as loyal as servants of the past. We simply assume that we cannot live a middle-class existence without it. But we would do well to reflect on the effect of the institution of paid domestic work on the internal dynamics of middle-class families.

What difference does having someone who is paid to look after them make to the lives of children and to that of their parents? In a recent study of paid domestic work in Kolkata, my co-author Seemin Qayum and I suggest that while the institution of paid domestic labour produces cleanliness, meals and childcare, it also produces and reproduces a class, gender and, often, caste unequal home and society.

If the home is the site of socialisation, where children learn the rules of society, then it is also the site where they learn about inequality and hierarchy. It is the site in which they learn, should they have a domestic worker in the house, that someone (usually a woman who does not look like them) will pick up their socks if they are lying around. They will learn that you can pay people to do things you do not want to do yourself, like making your bed, or cleaning your bathroom, and they will acquire the belief that those tasks require no skills. In other words, they will learn to normalise privilege, value certain kinds of work, and devalue others.

Becoming aware of hierarchy

We learn hierarchy in subtle ways; it is in small gestures and unspoken moments — such as the different tone of voice a mother uses toward workers, or where a domestic worker sits, or that a request made to a domestic worker is really an order — that children learn about the hierarchical order of daily life. One child remembers being told to touch the feet of his elders, and realising, when a hushed silence fell over the room, that “elders” did not include the maid; another distributes sweets to her friends but does not include the domestic worker who is also a child; and another expects his maid to run after and fetch the ball when he is playing with her. Children learn, through the simple act of every day living, to distinguish between domestic worker and employer, and to convert these perceptions and practices into internalised dispositions about what it means to treat a “servant as a servant.”

Having a domestic worker also mediates the relationship of the employing couple to each other. Gender hierarchies are learned through the fact that domestic work is still seen as women's work. The most common reaction when we went to interview employers was that the man would summon his wife and leave the room as if to say that he had no opinion on the matter, he simply lived in the house. A professional woman who wants to have a serious career learns to use her class advantage (the ability to hire a worker) to minimise her gender disadvantage (the inability to insist that your husband do his share of the housework and childcare). To put it bluntly, men simply won't do housework and women don't feel they can make them. The dominant ideology continues to be indisputably that men are responsible for life outside the home and women for life within the home, even if women work outside the home. The presence of a servant simply mitigates the need to insist that men do their share at home, and because it is the servant that does the housework, it continues to be devalued labour.

In this way, the maintenance of the institution of paid domestic work, though usually taken for granted, leads to the reproduction of hierarchies, not just in 1960s Mississippi but in the 21st century in very many societies, and stands in the way of any move towards a genuinely egalitarian one. Indeed, it produces what we have called a culture of servitude through which relations of domination, dependency, and hierarchy are normalised.

(Raka Ray teaches at the University of California, Berkeley.)

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