I could easily blog for domestic workers by telling some of the rather colorful and horrible stories about their treatment and circumstances which I have witnessed personally. We could shiver and feel virtuous at these illustrations of the way in which gender trouble at one economic level is solved through the exploitation of women at other economic levels, and often of other racial categories.
The first time I arrived in Brazil it was to a house with many servants – more than one per non-serving household member. The house had a porch with columns, and the servants, barefoot, wore turbans. In haze of my jet fatigue it seemed to me that I had arrived on an antebellum movie set, perhaps of New Orleans. By the end of the week I realized I was indeed in one, except that it was current and real.
I learned many amazing facts about the lives of servants during that voyage, and I kept exclaiming about them. Nobody else thought the topic was of the slightest interest, but I did and do, and I should write a collection of stories about these people one day.
A few months later, living on my own, I learned about manicures, pedicures, and facials – excellent things, especially when you do not have hot water at home. One might say I was corrupted but I think it is more complicated than that. What stood out there was that you could not hide from your place in the class system. You could try to run (and look silly) or you could learn to assume your role in as graceful a manner as possible. There was no other honest option.
A related strand of great interest is the cooperative nature of patron/client relationships – you hire someone to clean or wash clothes, but also get their expertise in folk remedies for tropical ills, and give them yours in reading, writing, and bureaucracy, and lend them your phone. I am not saying it is good, I am saying it is worth discussing.
Another irony is the double bind of the middle and lower classes. If limited scholarship funds and time to degree preclude both your doing your laundry by hand and your frequenting the prohibitively expensive landromat, you may well end up with a washerwoman whether you believe you should or not. If in a large, bureaucratic country where everything must be done in person and lines are very long, you do not have a car, a driver, or a runner, and you must therefore pay all of your bills and file any other necessary paperwork by city bus, you may well end up saying yes to the concierge who offers to do your grocery shopping for you in the meantime, for a very small fee. Or, as we know all too well, if your budget limits you to shopping at Wal*Mart, you are complicit in several forms of slavery.
There are principled reasons why one should not have domestic workers. But is it only housework a feminist should not hire out? What about yard work and general labor? What, if anything, changes when you figure in the fact that in this part of the United States housecleaners and yardworkers bill at $30 per hour, whereas construction workers are paid $9 and this professor, $19?
I recently spent four days as a home health worker because a friend took a fall which resulted in four fractures. It was my first full time stint at domestic work, and it was for a pleasant and self sufficient person, but it still demonstrated what we knew already. Housewives and domestic workers should not have to do the most menial of jobs for others, and they should get good salaries. They also need to hold authority, and to receive massages or whatever other wonderful services they need for their own renewal, because service work, especially of the house and home health stripe, wears you out and grinds you down.
Still I have my own house professionally cleaned whenever I can afford it. And I do not think that not to do so would appreciably change my degree of complicity with the current economic structure, nor that it would change the system. And that is how the Brazilians corrupted me – or more accurately, I think, put me face to face with my class position. But the question is complicity and how to effectively step outside its frame.