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Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy
Wash when I
tell you and don't talk to your friends
Nicole Constable on the plight of Hong Kong's Filipino maids
Monday July 14, 2003
When I first met her, in Hong Kong in 1994, Cathy was 19 years old. As she told me her story in the shade next to St John's Cathedral, her naive and cheerful demeanour belied the difficulties she had experienced since leaving her home in the Philippines. Cathy is the youngest of six children, and her mother is a widow. She completed secondary school at 17. A promising student, she hoped to study management in college, and eventually to start a small business. But her mother could not afford the tuition, so Cathy decided to go to work as a "helper" in Hong Kong instead. She had to overcome her mother's resistance. "I explained to her that I wanted to go to college," Cathy told me. "If I can earn some money, I will finish one [two-year] contract and then I'll go back home and continue my studies."
To avoid employment-agency expenses, Cathy asked her sister, who had already worked in Hong Kong for six years, to help her find an employer. A friend of her sister's recommended Ms Leung, a Cantonese woman in her late 30s, who ran a small textile business. Cathy was assured that Leung would be a good employer. She was single and lived alone in a small, middle-class flat. The workload, it seemed, would be reasonable.
Cathy's sister met her at Kai Tak airport on the evening of her arrival in October 1992 and took her to her employer's house. Cathy was surprised to find that the "single" woman lived with her husband and daughter, but Leung kindly reassured Cathy that she would be treated as a "younger sister".
As it happened, however, Cathy was required to work 16 hours a day, and to do "illegal work" outside of her employer's home. She was not paid the legal wage stipulated in her contract.
As Cathy explained: "It's written in the contract 3-2 [HK$3,200]. But when I got to Hong Kong ... [Leung] said to me, 'Your salary is 2-3 [HK$2,300], but don't worry, I will just add [to it] if your performance is good until it reaches minimum [wage].' She promised me, so I expected her to respect that promise. But for six months, no. She didn't add to my salary. So she only gave me 2-3. But in fact I only received 2-1, because she opened a bank account for me but she did not give HK$200 every month. The account was in her name and my name - a joint account. [Now] my bankbook is with her so I cannot get my money. My bankbook - my documents - she took them all."
When Cathy ate with the family, she was served last. Other times she was given leftovers and rarely had enough to eat. The family slept in air-conditioned quarters, but the room where Cathy slept, which also served as a storeroom, was sweltering hot in the summer and leaked when it rained.
Cathy's work followed a rigid daily schedule, beginning before 7am and ending around 9pm. Her duties included washing, shopping, cooking, cleaning, and looking after two dogs. In addition to such "official" duties, she was also required to serve as a messenger and to clean Leung's mother's flat, her friend's flat and office, and her office. Even on her rest day - which was rotated each week, thus curtailing her ability to meet her sister and her friends - she was required to make breakfast, take the dogs out, and do many other household chores.
Leung gave Cathy a detailed list of rules to follow. She was forbidden to wear makeup, nail varnish, or perfume; she could not wear dresses or skirts, only trousers. She was not permitted to use the phone, and Leung threatened to deduct HK$10 from her pay even for free local calls. Leung specified the days when Cathy could wash her hair, and she monitored the length of her showers. She was required to pay for broken dishes, and her use of hot water was strictly limited. Leung claimed the right to change Cathy's day off without notice and to dictate that Cathy be home by 9pm. All her work was to be finished before bed. After work, she "must turn off the light and sleep within one hour, at 10 o'clock".
Such lists of rules appear to be common among employers of domestic workers in Hong Kong. Staff at employment agencies encourage employers to write them. The final rule on Cathy's list takes the form of a threat:
"The employee must not be misconduct himself [sic]. The term misconduct includes insolence, persistent laziness, immorality, dishonesty and drunkenness. Misconduct will justify summary dismissal if it directly interferes with the interest and business of the employer or the employee's ability to perform his services. And all the expenses, including the air ticket, doctor fees, application fee, everything paid for you in advance for coming to HK the employer shall have the right to claim back all the charges and deduct in your salary while you break the contract or found dishonesty at any time."
In fact, under Hong Kong policies an employer does not have the right to reclaim expenses.
Although many employers create rules and regulations that they present as "law", the official employment contract for a domestic worker recruited outside of Hong Kong is the only contract that is legally recognised. But these laws, which exist to protect foreign domestic workers, are very difficult to enforce.
In some ways domestic workers are not so different from factory workers, who are also expected to abide by rules of conduct and dress, to follow timetables, and even to fulfill work quotas. But foreign domestic workers are far more vulnerable. Whereas large groups of factory workers work together for the same employer, working a set number of hours per day, usually under similar conditions to one another, domestic workers are isolated, both by virtue of being foreign and because they work in private homes. They normally live in the place where they work, which can make work time indistinguishable from time off. It is easy to see how the domestic worker can be exposed to abuse or exploitation.
Jane, a Filipina mother in her mid-40s, has been a domestic worker in Hong Kong for 15 years. During one particular interview with prospective employers she was presented with a set of rules.
Jane declined that job and went to another employer who seemed to be far less controlling.
Employers' rules not only govern a domestic worker's behaviour and attitude but also control her use of time and the pace of her work. The Hong Kong Institute teaches that women should: "Learn to clock watch. Schedule [your] time and work ... During your free time, rest if you must, but be ready to answer the door or telephone. Sew clothes or other special chores like re-potting some plants and cleaning kitchen cupboards." The idea that domestic workers need to be taught the "value of time" and how to "budget time" takes one straight back to the capitalist discipline imposed on English workers in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Many domestic workers are not permitted to write letters or take care of their own business on workdays, or during work hours, regardless of whether they have completed their duties. It is as though the employer has bought the domestic worker's labour power and time, not simply hired her to carry out specific tasks.
According to the Asian Migrant Centre study, more than 75% of all domestic workers surveyed worked more than 14 hours a day; only about 3% of Filipinas worked fewer than 11 hours a day. Almost a third worked 16 to 17 hours a day, with 4% slaving for more than 18 hours a day.
All these timetables, dress codes, restrictions on the use of space, excessive working hours, special eating arrangements, among other household rules and regulations, do not simply control a domestic worker's labour. More importantly, they also convey the employer's sense of the domestic worker's inferior position.
Informal rules of this nature are first imposed within the private domain of the household; but they may also end up extending to the still more private domain of a domestic worker's body, personality, voice - even her emotions. Some, like Cathy and Jane, do not passively acquiesce to their employers' demands and instead devise ways to improve their situations and leave abusive, controlling employers for better ones. They, however, are the more fortunate ones.
· Extracted from Filipino Workers in Hong Kong Homes: Household Rules and Relations by Nicole Constable. From Global Women, edited by Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hothschild, published by Granta Books at £8.99 on July 24. © Cornell University Press
The maid's rulebook
· You are not allowed to rest and lean on the parlour sofa or your employer's bed.
· A maid must always be polite and greet the employer, his family members, relatives, visitors as soon as meeting them by saying: good morning, good day, good afternoon, good evening or good night (before going to bed), sir, madam etc. Don't forget to say thank you at appropriate times.
· Do not use any nail polish on fingers and toes. Do not put on make-up, even when you are going out to do the family shopping. Your hair must be short and tidy. Do not wear tight trousers and low-cut T-shirts while you are working. Do not go to the parlour in pyjamas.
· You will be required to sleep and attend the baby and elderly, even during night time.
· Must take bath daily before going to bed. Handwash your own clothes separately from those of your employers and the children (especially the underwear), unless your employer allows you to wash your own clothes in the washing-machine together with theirs.
· Use separate towels for different purposes, such as a) sweeping floor, b) cleaning furniture, c) cleaning dining table, d) washing oily dishes, e) washing cups, f) washing basin, g) washing toilet; you should use separate towel for each purpose.
· Washing of car and caring for pets (eg dogs and cats) are part of your duties with no extra allowance.
· You give a very bad impression to your employer if they see you chatting or laughing with your Filipino friends outside their house or down the street. Therefore, never gather with other Filipino maids near your living place, especially when you are bringing their kids down to the street to catch the school bus or going to the market.
Do not write any letters during your working days, do it on your holidays.
Who cleans up in your house - a man, a woman ... or a cleaner? Barbara Ehrenreich on the new politics of dirt
Saturday July 12, 2003
As class polarisation grows, the classic posture of submission makes a stealthy comeback. "We scrub your floors the old-fashioned way," boasts the brochure from Merry Maids, the largest of the residential cleaning services that have sprung up across the US in the past two decades, "on our hands and knees." This is not a posture that independent "cleaning ladies" willingly assume - preferring, like most people who clean their own homes, the sponge mop wielded from a standing position. But employees of Merry Maids, The Maids International and other new corporate-run cleaning services spend hours every day down there, with or without kneepads, wiping up the drippings of the affluent.
I spent three weeks in September 1999 as an employee of The Maids International in a New England city, cleaning, along with my fellow team members, approximately 60 houses containing a total of about 250 scrubbable floors - bathrooms, kitchens and halls requiring the hands-and-knees treatment. It's a different world below knee level, one that few adults enter voluntarily. Here, you find elaborate dust structures held together by a scaffolding of dog hairs; dried bits of pasta glued to the floor; the congealed remains of gravies, jellies, contraceptive creams, vomit and urine. Sometimes, too, you encounter some fragment of a human being: the expensively-shod feet of the female homeowner, for instance. Look up and you may find this person staring at you, arms folded, in anticipation of an overlooked stain. In rare instances, she may try to help in some vague, symbolic way, by moving the cockatoo's cage, for example, or apologising for the leaves shed by a miniature indoor tree. Mostly, though, she will not see you at all.
Housework, as you may recall from the feminist theories of the 1960s and 1970s, was supposed to be the great equaliser of women. Whatever else women did - jobs, school, childcare - we also did housework. All women were workers, and the home was our workplace - unpaid and unsupervised to be sure, but a workplace no less than the offices and factories men repaired to every morning. If men thought of the home as a site of leisure and recreation - a "haven in a heartless world" - this was to ignore the invisible female proletariat that kept it cosy and humming. We were on the march then, or so we imagined, united against a society that devalued our labour even as it waxed mawkish over "the family" and "the home".
In the most eye-catching elaboration of the home-as-workplace theme, in 1972 Marxist feminists Maria-rosa Dalla Costa and Selma James proposed that the home was, in fact, an economically productive and significant workplace, an extension of the actual factory, since housework served to "reproduce the labour power" of others, particularly men. The male worker would hardly be in shape to punch in for his shift, after all, if some woman had not fed him, laundered his clothes and cared for the children who were his contribution to the next generation of workers. If the home was a quasi-industrial workplace staffed by women for the ultimate benefit of the capitalists, then "wages for housework" - a campaign led by James in the UK in the 1970s - was the obvious demand.
But when most American feminists, Marxist or otherwise, asked the Marxist question, "Cui bono?" (who benefits?) they tended to come up with a far simpler answer: men. If women were the domestic proletariat, then men made up the class of domestic exploiters, free to lounge while their mates scrubbed. In consciousness-raising groups, we railed over husbands and boyfriends who were unaware of housework - unless, of course, it hadn't been done. The "dropped socks" left by a man for a woman to gather up and launder joined lipstick and spiked heels as emblems of gender oppression. When, somewhere, a man dropped a sock with the calm expectation that his wife would retrieve it, it was a sock heard around the world. Wherever second-wave feminism took root, battles broke out between lovers or spouses over sticky worktops, piled-up laundry and whose turn it was to do the dishes.
The radical new idea was that housework was not only a relationship between a woman and a duster or an unmade bed; it also defined a relationship between human beings, typically husbands and wives. This marked a departure from the more conservative views of Betty Friedan who, in The Feminine Mystique, never thought to enter men into the equation. She raged against a society that consigned its educated women to what she saw as essentially janitorial chores, but men are virtually exempt from housework in her book - why drag them down, too? At one point, Friedan even disparaged a "Mrs G", who "somehow couldn't get her housework done before her husband came home at night and was so tired then that he had to do it". Educated women would just have to become more efficient, so that housework could no longer "expand to fill the time available".
Or they could hire other women to do it - an option approved by Friedan, as by the National Organisation for Women (Now), which she helped launch. At the 1973 congressional hearings on whether to extend the Fair Labour Standards Act to household workers, Now testified to the affirmative, arguing that improved wages and working conditions would attract more women to the field. One young Now member added, on a personal note, "Like many young women today, I am in school in order to develop a rewarding career for myself. I also have a home to run and can fully conceive of the need for household help as my free time at home becomes more and more restricted. Women know housework is dirty, tedious work, and they are willing to pay to have it done." On the aspirations of the women paid to do it, neither Friedan nor these members of Now had, at the time, a word to say.
So the insight that distinguished the more radical, post-Friedan cohort of feminists was that, when we talked about housework, we were really talking, yet again, about power. Housework was not degrading because it was manual labour, as Friedan thought, but because it was embedded in degrading relationships. To make a mess that another person will have to deal with - the toothpaste sprayed on the bathroom mirror, the dirty dishes left from a late-night snack - is to exert domination in one of its more silent and intimate forms. One person's arrogance - or indifference, or hurry - becomes another's occasion for toil. And when the person who is cleaned up after is consistently male, while the person who cleans up is consistently female, you have a formula for reproducing male domination from one generation to the next.
Hence the feminist perception of housework as one more way by which men exploit women. Hiring a cleaner was not an option for second-wave feminists in the 1980s. There already were at least two able-bodied adults in the average home - a man and a woman - and the hope was that, after a few initial skirmishes, they would learn to share the housework graciously.
A couple of decades later, however, the average household still falls far short of that goal. True, women do less housework than they did before the feminist revolution and the rise of the two-income family: down from an average 30 hours per week in 1965 to 17.5 hours in 1995, according to a July 1999 study from the University of Maryland. Some of that decline reflects a relaxation of standards rather than a redistribution of chores; women still do two-thirds of whatever housework gets done (British figures, though imprecise, echo this). The inequity is sharpest for the most despised of household chores: cleaning. Between 1965 and 1995, men increased the time they spent scrubbing, vacuuming and sweeping by 240% - all the way up to 1.7 hours per week - while women decreased their cleaning time by only 7%, to 6.7 hours per week. Perhaps the most disturbing finding is that almost all the increase in male participation took place between the 1970s and the mid-1980s. Fifteen years after the apparent cessation of hostilities, it is probably not too soon to declare a result: in the "chore wars" of the 1970s and 1980s, women gained a little ground, but overall, and after a few strategic concessions, men won.
Enter, then, the cleaning lady as dea ex machina. Marriage counsellors recommend hiring them as an alternative to squabbling, as do many within the residential cleaning industry itself. A Chicago cleaning woman quotes one of her clients as saying that if she were to give up the service, "My husband and I will be divorced in six months." One Merry Maids franchise owner has learned to capitalise directly on housework-related spats: he closes 30-35% of his sales by making follow-up calls on Saturday mornings, the "prime time for arguing over the fact that the house is a mess".
In 1999, somewhere between 14% and 18% of households employed outsiders to do their cleaning, and the numbers have been rising dramatically since. (In the UK, a Work Foundation survey this year concluded that one in 10 working people employs someone to help with housework, while a survey by the electrical retailers Currys, also this year, put the figure at 40%; Datamonitor estimates that an additional 17.9m households across Europe will take advantage of home cleaning and home laundry services by 2006.) Among my middle-class, professional women friends and acquaintances, including some who made important contributions to the early feminist analysis of housework two and a half decades ago, the employment of a cleaning person is now nearly universal. The home - or at least the affluent home - is finally becoming what radical feminists in the 1970s only imagined it was: a "workplace" for women and a tiny, though increasingly visible, part of the capitalist economy. The question is this: as your home becomes a workplace for someone else, is it still a place where you want to live?
Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, no one talks about the "politics of housework" any more. The demand for "wages for housework" no longer has the power to polarise feminist conferences; it has sunk to the status of a curio, along with the consciousness-raising groups in which women once rallied support in their struggles with messy men. In the academy, according to the feminist sociologists I interviewed, housework has lost much of its former cachet - in part, I suspect, because fewer sociologists actually do it. Even the number of paid household workers is hard to pin down. The Census Bureau reports that there were 549,000 domestic workers in the US in 1998, up 9% since 1996, but this may be a considerable underestimate, since so much of the servant economy is still underground.
The great majority - although, again, no one knows the exact numbers - of paid cleaners are freelancers, or "independents", who find their clients through agencies or networks of already employed friends and relatives. To my acquaintances in the employing class, the freelance housekeeper seems to be a fairly privileged and prosperous type of worker, usually said to be viewed as a friend or even as "one of the family". But the shifting ethnic composition of the workforce tells another story: many women have been trapped in this kind of work, whether by racism, imperfect English skills, immigration status or lack of education. (In the UK, and specifically the London area, according to Bridget Anderson, an academic and an expert in the field, a high proportion of domestic workers are immigrants: for example, a woman she interviewed who advertised for a housekeeper this year had 30 applicants, only one of whom was British-born.)
Few happily choose to enter domestic service. Even when the pay is deemed acceptable, the hours may be long and unpredictable; there is no job security; and if the employer has failed to pay social security taxes or national insurance (in some cases because the employee herself prefers to be paid off the books), there are no retirement benefits. And the pay is often far from acceptable.
Mostly, however, independent maids and their employers complain about the peculiar intimacy of the employer-employee relationship. Some employers seek friendship, though they are usually quick to redraw the lines once the maid is perceived as overstepping. Others demand deference bordering on servility, while an increasing portion of the nouveau riche is simply out of control. To verbal abuse add published reports of sexual and physical assaults - the teenage son of an employer, for example, kicking a live-in nanny for refusing to make sandwiches for him and his friends after school.
For better or worse, capitalist rationality is finally making some headway into this preindustrial backwater. Nationwide and even international cleaning services such as Merry Maids, Molly Maid and The Maids International, all of which have arisen since the 1970s, now control 20-25% of the US house-cleaning business (Molly Maid in the UK estimates that it has about 4% of the business). The customer hires the service, not the maid, who has been replaced anyway by a team of two to four people, only one of whom, the team leader, is usually authorised to speak to the customer about the work at hand. The maids' wages, their social security, backaches and childcare problems are the sole concern of the company; the customer and the actual workers need never interact. Cleaning services are the ideal solution for anyone still sensitive enough to find the traditional employer-maid relationship morally vexing.
Among the women I worked with at The Maids, only one said she had previously worked as an independent, and she professed to be pleased with her new status as a cleaning-service employee. She no longer needed a car to get her from house to house, and she could take a day off - unpaid, of course - to stay home with a sick child without risking the loss of a customer. I myself could see the advantage of not having to deal directly with the customers, who were sometimes at home while we worked and eager to make use of their supervisory skills. Criticisms of our methods, as well as demands that we perform unscheduled tasks, could simply be referred to the team leader or to the franchise owner.
But workers inevitably face losses when an industry moves from the entrepreneurial to the industrial phase - most strikingly, in this case, in the matter of pay. At Merry Maids, I was promised $200 for a 40-hour week, with the manager hastening to add that "you can't calculate it in dollars per hour", since the 40 hours includes all the time spent travelling from house to house - up to five houses a day - which is unpaid. The Maids International, with its straightforward starting rate of $6.63 an hour, seemed preferable, although this rate was conditional on perfect attendance. Miss one day and your wage dropped to $6 an hour for two weeks, a rule that weighed particularly heavily on those who had young children. (In the UK, a company such as HomeMaids, which operates more like an employment agency than the US-style franchises, placing a particular cleaner with a particular householder, charges employers in London between £8.75 and £9.25 an hour, and pays employees around £6 an hour. Molly Maid charges per job - on average £45 for a two person crew cleaning a three-bedroomed semi throughout; it pays the cleaners a percentage of that, but will not reveal what that percentage is - "commercially sensitive" information - while stressing that rates are well above the current minimum wage of £4.20 an hour, particularly for the head maid.)
The most interesting feature of the cleaning-service chains, at least from an abstract, historical perspective, is that they are finally transforming the home into a fully capitalist-style workplace, and in ways that the old wages-for-housework advocates could never have imagined. A house is an innately difficult workplace to control, especially a house with 10 or more rooms, like so many we cleaned; workers may remain out of one another's sight for an hour or so. For independents, the ungovernable nature of the home workplace means a certain amount of autonomy. They can take breaks (though this is probably ill-advised if the homeowner is on the premises); they can ease the monotony by listening to the radio while they work. But cleaning services lay down rules meant to enforce a factory-like - or even convent-like - discipline on their far-flung employees.
Within a customer's house, nothing at all was to touch our lips - not even water. On hot days, I sometimes broke that rule by drinking from a bathroom tap. Televisions and radios were off-limits, and we were never, ever to curse out loud, even in an ostensibly deserted house. There might be a homeowner secreted in some locked room, we were told, ear pressed to the door or, more likely, a tape recorder or video camera running. At the time, I dismissed this as a scare story, but I have since come across ads for concealable video cameras designed to "get a visual record of your babysitter's actions" and "watch employees to prevent theft". It was the threat or rumour of hidden recording devices, set up by customers to catch one of us stealing, that provided the final capitalist-industrial touch: supervision.
But what makes the work most factory-like is the precise work pattern imposed by the companies. (Molly Maid in Britain operates in a similar way, providing transport, uniform, and establishing a mode of working.) An independent, or a person cleaning his or her own home, chooses where she will start and, within each room, probably tackles the most egregious dirt first. But with the special "systems" devised by the cleaning services and imparted to employees through training videos, there are no such decisions to make. In The Maids' "healthy-touch" system, all cleaning is divided into four task areas - dusting, vacuuming, kitchens and bathrooms - which are in turn divided among the team members. For each task area other than vacuuming, there is a bucket containing rags and the appropriate cleaning fluids, so the biggest decision an employee has to make is which fluid and scrubbing instrument (rag, brush or plastic scouring pad) to deploy on which kind of surface; almost everything else has been choreographed in advance. When vacuuming, you begin with the master bedroom; when dusting, with the first room off the kitchen, then you move through the rooms going left to right. When entering each room, you proceed from left to right and top to bottom, and the same with each surface - left to right, top to bottom. Deviations are subject to rebuke, as I discovered when a team leader caught me moving my arm from right to left, then left to right, while wiping window polish over a french door.
It's not easy for anyone with extensive cleaning experience - and I include myself in this category - to accept this loss of autonomy. But I came to love the system: first, because if you hadn't always been travelling rigorously from left to right, it would have been easy to lose your way in some of the larger houses and to omit a room. Second, many of our houses were already clean when we started, at least by any normal standards; but the absence of visible dirt did not mean there was less work to do, for no surface could ever be neglected, so it was important to have "the system" to remind you of where you had been and what you had already "cleaned". No doubt the biggest advantage of the system, though, is that it helps you achieve the speed demanded by the company, which allots only so many minutes per domicile (from about 45 for a smallish apartment up to several hours per house).
Even ritual work takes its toll on those assigned to perform it. Turnover is dizzyingly high: cleaning is a physically punishing occupation, something to tide you over for a few months, not year after year. The hands-and-knees posture damages knees; vacuuming strains the back; constant wiping and scrubbing invite repetitive stress injuries. In my three weeks as a maid, I suffered nothing more than a persistent muscle spasm in the right forearm - from scrubbing, I suppose - but the damage would have been far worse if I'd had to go home to my own housework and children, as most of my co-workers did, instead of returning to my motel and indulging in a daily after-work regimen of ice packs and stretches. Chores that seem effortless at home, even almost recreational when undertaken at will for 20 minutes or so at a time, quickly turn nasty when performed hour after hour under relentless time pressure.
So far, the independent, entrepreneurial house cleaner is holding her own, but there are reasons to think that corporate cleaning services will eventually dominate the industry. New users often prefer the impersonal, standardised service offered by the chains, and in a fast-growing industry new users make up a sizeable chunk of the total clientele.
The trend toward outsourcing the work of the home seems, at the moment, unstoppable. Not only have the skilled crafts, such as sewing and cooking from scratch, left the home, but many of the "white-collar" tasks are on their way out, too. For a fee, new firms will pick up dry-cleaning, babysit pets, buy groceries, deliver dinner, even do the Christmas shopping. With other firms and individuals offering to buy your clothes, organise your financial files and wait around in your home for the plumber to show up, why would anyone want to hold on to the toilet cleaning?
One more trend impels people to hire outside help, according to cleaning expert Cheryl Mendelson: fewer of us know how to clean or even to "tidy up". I hear this from professional women defending their decision to hire help: "I'm just not very good at it myself" or, "I wouldn't really know where to begin." Since most of us learn to clean from our parents (usually our mothers), any diminution of cleaning skills is transmitted from one generation to the next.
And if this is a loss, few mention it. Almost everything we buy is the product of some other person's suffering and miserably underpaid labour. I clean my own house, but I can hardly claim purity in any other area of consumption. I buy my jeans at Gap, which is reputed to subcontract to sweatshops. I tend to favour decorative objects no doubt ripped off by their purveyors from scantily paid developing world crafts-people. Why should housework, among all the goods and services we consume, arouse any special angst?
Yet it does, as I have found in conversations with liberal-minded employers of maids, perhaps because we all sense that there are ways in which housework is different from other products and services. First is its inevitable proximity to the activities that constitute "private" life. The home that becomes a workplace for other people remains a home. Someone who has no qualms about buying rugs woven by child slaves in India or coffee picked by ruined peasants in Guatemala might still hesitate to tell dinner guests that, surprisingly enough, his or her lovely home doubles as a sweatshop during the day. You can eschew the chain cleaning services, of course, hire an independent cleaner at a generous hourly wage, and even encourage, at least in spirit, the unionisation of the house-cleaning industry, but none of this will change the fact that someone is working in your home at a job she would almost certainly never have chosen for herself - if she'd had qualifications, for example - or that the place where she works, however enthusiastically or resentfully, is the same as the place where you sleep.
It is also the place where your children are raised, and what they learn pretty quickly is that some people are less worthy than others. Even better wages and working conditions won't erase the hierarchy between employer and domestic help, since the help is usually there only because the employer has "something better" to do with her time. Housework, as radical feminists once proposed, defines a human relationship and, when unequally divided among the social groups, reinforces pre-existing inequalities. Dirt, in other words, tends to attach to the people who remove it - "dustmen" and "cleaning ladies".
There is another lesson the servant economy teaches its beneficiaries and, most troublingly, the children among them. To be cleaned up after is to achieve a certain magical weightlessness and immateriality. Almost everyone complains about violent video games, but paid house-cleaning has the same consequence-abolishing effect: you blast the villain into a mist of blood droplets and move right along; you drop the socks knowing they will eventually levitate, laundered and folded, back to their normal dwelling place. The result is a kind of virtual existence in which the trail of litter that follows you seems to evaporate all by itself. Spill syrup on the floor and the cleaning person will scrub it off when she comes on Wednesday. Leave your newspaper scattered around your aeroplane seat and the flight attendants will deal with it. A servant economy may provide opportunities, however limited, for poor and immigrant women. But it also breeds callousness and solipsism in the served, and it does so all the more effectively when the service is performed close up and routinely in the place where they live and reproduce.
Individual situations vary, of course, in ways that elude blanket judgment. Some people - the elderly and disabled, parents of new babies, asthmatics who require an allergen-free environment - may well need help performing what nursing-home staffers call the ADLs, or activities of daily living, and no shame should be attached to their dependency. And in a less gender-divided social order, husbands and boyfriends would more readily do their share of the chores. The growing servant economy, with all the quandaries it generates, is largely a result of men's continuing abdication of their domestic responsibilities.
However we resolve the issue in our individual homes, the moral challenge is, put simply, to make work visible again: not only the scrubbing and vacuuming, but all the hoeing, stacking, hammering, drilling, bending and lifting that goes into creating and maintaining a liveable habitat. In an ever more economically unequal world, in which so many of the affluent devote their lives to ghostly pursuits such as stock trading, image making and opinion polling, real work - in the old-fashioned sense of labour that engages hand as well as eye, that tires the body and directly alters the physical world - tends to vanish from sight. The feminists of my generation tried to bring some of it into the light of day but, like busy professional women fleeing the house in the morning, they left the project unfinished, the debate broken off mid-sentence, the noble intentions unfulfilled. Sooner or later, someone else will have to finish the job.
· This is an edited extract from Maid To Order, an essay by Barbara Ehrenreich, one of 15 in a book, Global Woman, edited by Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild, to be published by Granta Books on July 24, priced £8.99. To order a copy, with free UK p&p, call 0870 066 7979.
Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild's collection of essays on the exploitation of female workers, Global Woman, is a book to shame the west, says Polly Toynbee
Saturday July 19, 2003
Woman: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy
edited by Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild
336pp, Granta, £8.99
This is western feminism's dirty little secret. Behind the glorious image of the have-it-all woman in the Armani suit, with a Gucci briefcase on one arm and a baby tucked under the other, too often lies a tale of the oppression of another woman. Domestic servitude has only been escaped by passing it down to another cadre of oppressed women. Battalions of low-paid women - in America most of them foreign - have taken up the domestic duties, along with the dirty washing, discarded by professional women who have fled the home. Liberation for high-fliers breaking through glass ceilings is only possible because of a flotilla of unseen, unheard women who care for their children, clean their homes and cook their meals while they live liberated like men.
This is a book to tear at the heart and wrench with guilt many women who already feel they are juggling their lives on a knife-edge. Their own deep anxieties about their children and their high-pressured lives are all too often passed on to the women who work for them, making them exceptionally bad employers.
In America this is a story of the mass importation of a precious new raw material - care and love - from the third world. Take one typical case: Rowena Bautista left a village in the Philippines to work as a domestic in Washington DC - one of about 800,000 legal household workers (plus armies of illegals). In her basement room she has photos of four children, two of her own whom she has left behind and two of her American charges to whom she has to some extent transferred her love and care.
She left her own children in the care of their grandmother five years ago when the youngest, Clinton, was only three: she could find no work to provide for them. The children's grandmother is herself so hard-pressed that she works as a teacher from 7am to 9pm each day, so Rowena has hired a local woman to cook, clean and care for the family in her long absence. (In her turn, that woman leaves her own child in the care of a very elderly grandmother.) Rowena hasn't managed to get home to the Philippines for the last two Christmases, but the family relies on the money she sends.
Rowena calls the American child she tends "my baby". She says: "I give Noa what I can't give my own children." Last time she saw her own son, he turned away from her, asking resentfully: "Why did you come back?"
The distress and damage done to such abandoned children is well-documented in this collection of research. A series of essays edited by two of the great American writers on work, it exposes a deeply shocking underworld of globally exploited women. This is one of those moments when things that are known but unspoken are dragged out into the light of day. Chapter after chapter reveals how women's traditional roles, rejected by western women, are now being filled by wickedly treated other mothers. Their love is bought, they give everything to their charges and yet they are often sacked on a whim, never to see their child charges again.
Imported cleaners, cooks, old-age carers, nannies and housemaids are joined by mail-order brides for men who like the submissive "old-fashioned" values from the east. (That chapter is aptly called "Highly Educated Overseas Brides and Low-Wage US Husbands".) And there are the sex-workers and sex-slaves, some who knew what they were in for, others who were tricked or kidnapped. Horror stories abound, including child sex tourism.
Countries such as the Philippines have become economically dependent on the remittances women domestic workers send home. They may leave behind men whose skills are in less demand in the west: demoralised by unemployment, some husbands turn to drink and gambling, wasting all the hard-earned money their wives send, leaving the children worse off than if their mothers had stayed home.
This is a most brutal example of the force of globalisation, draining even love away from poor countries. It is the final depredation, exploiting the last resources the third world has left to sell - motherhood and sex.
Since this is an American book, I checked the official number of domestic workers in Britain: it is 154,000 and not rising, though a great many more certainly work in the black economy. There have been enough cases of diplomats bringing in visa-slaves as domestics to make it clear that many of the same abuses happen here. In the UK the social injustice is mainly indigenous: professional women pass their un-wanted domestic work on to poorer British women at pitiful rates of pay. Only the richest 20% of working women can afford to buy childcare, paying very low wages to minders or nursery assistants. Well-paid nannies are confined to the topmost echelons.
What is to be done? Barbara Ehrenreich's ground-breaking book Nickel and Dimed exposed the impossibility of living on the minimum wage in the US: one of her most memorable jobs was working for The Maids, a domestic cleaning service. Here, recalling that starvation drudgery, she offers a ferociously forensic dissection of everything wrong with a corrupted capitalism that has led to this exploitation of third-world women.
Hers is a devastating feminist critique, almost as savage about high-earning women who pass on their domestic duties as she is about the sexist world in which all domestic work is consigned to women in the first place. In the "chore wars" of 1970s feminism, she says, men won. They took on almost no extra housework or childcare. "Enter then the cleaning lady as dea ex machina, restoring tranquility as well as order to the home," she writes. Marriage-guidance counsellors now recommend them as an alternative to squabbling.
In the US, this is a race as well as a class issue: maids are mainly black, reinforcing rich kids' views that black means servant: a little white girl in a supermarket trolley passing a little black girl exclaims: "Oh, look Mommy, a baby maid!" The mistress-maid relationship is fraught, and Ehrenreich describes how an "overclass" has become deskilled in any domestic knowledge, unable to cook or clean, with children who would "suffocate in their own detritus" without someone to pick up after them. She twists the knife in overprivileged women who have "something better" to do with their time in a society where the rich get richer and the poor poorer.
In Britain, this debate revolves around the state's failure to provide universal childcare with well-paid nursery assistants: there's nothing wrong with equal women working for good pay as respected childcare professionals. In the US, state provision is not even worth talking about.
But Ehrenreich's eloquent moral fury is primarily directed at a capitalism that exploits every last drop of blood of the weak, wherever they are in the world, whatever they have to sell, even a mother's love. Unregulated, out-of-control capitalism creates a long-hours culture in which women cannot compete and still be mothers. Above all, the fault is with men who still refuse to take an equal share in everything domestic - thinking, planning and doing. If they did, the nature of work would change.
This deeply disturbing book reaches right to the dark heart of society's worst dysfunctions, with stories to make you weep with outrage. If postfeminism means that it's all right for some other woman to be exploited instead of you, this should fire up some of that good old-time passion. Feminism always was a revolutionary project, and Ehrenreich bemoans a project left uncompleted: "Sooner or later someone else will have to finish the job."
Polly Toynbee's Hard Work: Life in Low-Pay Britain is published by Bloomsbury.
Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy
Edited by Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild
Metropolitan Books, 2003, 328 pages, $26.00
The invisible world of the largely non-white, migrant, poor women who nanny and clean for families across the United States is made strikingly visible in social critics Barbara Ehrenreich’s and Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Global Woman. This is not just an extraordinary read, but a jarring read. Very few of us readers could be those nannies, maids, or sex workers. Indeed, for most of us readers, they are “the other.” But we could—dare we admit it?—be their employers. And that is part of what makes reading this book so thought-provoking. What exactly is the reader’s own role in this underworld that underpins the new economy?
Ehrenreich is a prolific writer with a knack for turning difficult topics into popular reading. Case in point is her recent bestseller Nickled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, for which she went “undercover” as a blue-color worker to demonstrate how and why today’s working class cannot possibly get by. Her co-editor Arlie Russell Hochschild is a similarly distinguished thinker and writer (author of bestseller The Second Shift, as well as the most recent The Commercialization of Intimate Life: Notes on Home and Life).
In Global Woman, they have woven together nannies, maids, and sex workers to document the feminization of the new economy. Their joint effort builds on their own individual work but brings in new and exciting dimensions from 13 collaborators--, who include the well-known author Susan Cheever, academic Saskia Sassen, Free the Slaves director Kevin Bales, and Joy Zarembka, who writes movingly of the powerlessness of foreign domestic workers imported to work in the U.S. for employees of agencies like the World Bank.
I am likely to be forever haunted by Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo’s chilling “Blowups and Other Unhappy Endings.” Hondagneu-Sotelo’s series of stories on how the unequal power relations between employer and employee merge with faulty cross-cultural communication to take nannies and maids from seemingly secure jobs to nothing with one wrong sentence.
And what of the children of these nannies whom we expect to love our children as they love their own? Here again, Global Woman enters a largely hitherto invisible world. Rhacel Salazar Parrenas, for example, skillfully digs into the “care crisis” that she finds among Filipino children left behind for years at a time when their mothers travel thousands of miles for jobs.
The essays also remind us of the World Bank and IMF-imposed development models that force governments around the world to tighten their belts and lead Filipino schoolteachers to decide they would be better off as domestics in Hong Kong. These same policies convince engineers and lawyers from Vietnam to become mail-order brides of less-educated Americans—as Hung Cam Thai expands upon in a chapter on “Clashing Dreams: Highly Educated Overseas Brides and Low-wage U.S. Husbands.” These unforgettable topics are typically left below the surface in exposés of mail-order brides and mail-order sex.
Together, these essays offer a sobering counter to the popular notion that the “new economy” will replace physical labor with “intellectual labor”—not so for the millions of women who inhabit the pages of this book. And, it is part of the unfinished business of feminism that we are able to use these invisible women to further the myth that today’s Western woman can successfully juggle work and family to “have it all” without any changes in social policy.
I loved this book and simultaneously am haunted by it. As someone who lived for many years in Southeast Asia and as the mother of a six-year old, I have met many women like those who are the nannies, maids and sex-workers in Global Woman. I can tell you of a woman in the Philippines who went overseas to work as a nanny in order to pay for the healthcare that her own very sickly young daughter needed. In her absence, her daughter died. And I can tell you of a woman from El Salvador whom many children (including my own son) in my neighborhood adore, but who bears a deep dark secret: her own two daughters, now grown, long ago stopped speaking to her after cursing her for abandoning them in El Salvador.
I even have a file filled with such disturbing stories for a book I had once thought of writing about the women who cared for and educated my son and his friends. But, kudos to Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Hochshild and their collaborators: I do not need to write that book anymore.
So too are Ehrenreich and Hochschild to be applauded, not only for their wonderful essays in this book, but also for mov-ing beyond a focus on their own best-selling work. In what seems a conscious, political act, Ehrenreich and Hochschild have chosen to use their names and reputation to give voice to their other co-authors, who in turn join them in choosing to serve as transmission belts to make the “other” both visible and haunting.
Robin Broad is a professor in the International Development Program at American University. She is the author of three books on globalization and development, including Global Backlash: Citizen Initiatives for a Just World Economy.
02 August 2003
One of the beauties of this book is that it pulls together what the less observant might simply see as scattered stories of pure bad luck or even personal tragedy: the battered mail-order bride, the child prostitute in a Thai brothel, the exploited maid in Manhattan. No. Even the Filipino nanny who works in my road, lugging in the crates of mineral water for a party or wheeling out her employers' baby to the park, is part of what the vigorous contributors to this volume call the female face of the new imperialism. As co-editor Arlie Russell Hochschild writes, "there are no colonial officers in tan helmets, no invading armies ... instead we see a benign scene of Third World Women pushing baby carriages, elder care workers patiently walking, arms linked, with elderly clients".
Conventional definitions of globalisation emphasise the hyper-mobility of capital, electronic markets and the neutralisation of the idea of place. But there is an all-too-human underbelly to these narratives: in particular, the mass migration of poor women from the cities of the south to the north. Here, they work at the low-wage end of high-paid professions (architects, journalists, lawyers and financiers need toilet paper, empty waste baskets and clean floors) or else in new informal, domesticated economies.
One reason why wealthy professionals can remain and raise their families in city centres is the growing supply of cheap foreign labour. In her research on New York and other US cities, sociologist Saskia Sassen estimates that between 30 to 50 per cent of new jobs created by globalisation are low-waged.
What of the human beings behind these statistics? Virtually every chapter in this book tells a poignant story. "Blow Ups and Other Unhappy Endings" is a set of vivid vignettes about the terminal conflicts between nannies, cleaners or maids and their apparently appalling employers. "Breadwinner no more" looks at the contrasting responses of two Sri Lankan men to losing their masculine roles and status; one descends into alcoholism, the other into clowning. Then there's the undiluted tragedy of 15-year-old Siri, forced to have sex with up to 15 men a day, with no choice but to accept her fate as a child prostitute. Kevin Bales estimates that up to a million girls work as prostitutes in Thailand's cities.
If male exploitation of women comes as no great surprise, there is something peculiarly disheartening about the new stressed face of the female imperialist. One of the saddest chapters tells the story of Rowena and Maria, both mothers from the Phillipines, both forced to migrate to the US in search of work, who pour the love and care they cannot give their own children into young American charges. Free from the pressure and anxiety that afflicts their time-starved employers, both can give the children more relaxed and loving attention. But it comes at a terrible cost to their own children, living in crowded conditions with relatives, rationed to the odd call and even rarer visits from their mothers. Little wonder that the children of migrating mothers have much higher rates of emotional and physical ill-health.
In the UK, professional women are wearily familiar with their own work-life dilemmas. Yet in the unending stream of articles, books, films and dramas about the "I don't know how she does it" generation, we learn remarkably little about the low-wage women who keep the successful two-income family afloat. Few think to ask how the nanny or cleaner does it. Yet she often has a more disturbing or interesting story to tell.
This depressing development was almost inevitable once first-wave feminism gave way to the me-first tenets of consumer capitalism. All the more reason to salute the work of clear-sighted analysts such as Ehrenreich and Hochschild. Barbara Ehrenreich, in particular, has become an increasingly significant political voice. From her early writings on women and the sexual revolution to her book on low-wage America, Nickel and Dimed, she has been a humane, witty and lucid voice of feminist reason.
Ehrenreich rightly sees the earlier feminist revolution as unfinished. She is unflinchingly critical of men's continuing failure to pull their domestic weight. As she points out in her chapter on the politics of dirt, between 1965 and 1995 men increased their time scrubbing, vacuuming, cleaning by a vast-sounding 240 per cent - to a mere 1.7 hours a week. At the same time, women decreased their cleaning time by a tiny-sounding 7 per cent, yet still worked in the home for 6.7 hours a week. (I doubt these figures have shifted much.)
Crucially, Ehrenreich understands that domestic gender wars can only form a part of modern feminist analysis: "A servant economy may provide opportunities, however limited, for poor and immigrant women. But it also breeds callousness and solipsism in the served and it does so all the more effectively when the service is performed close up and routinely in the place where they live."
So what kind of politics follows from this analysis? Clearly, there should be more campaigns in support of migrant workers and urgent action on child prostitution. Yet, as the co-editors say, "before we can hope to find activist solutions, we need to see these women as full human beings".
Something even more important is revealed by the stories in this book. Even if we were to reward care with greater status, there is still a limit to how far you can and should outsource intimacy. The global face of capitalism has simply increased the growth of a disturbing "intimacy deficit", with professional women now joining the ranks of men, cut off from satisfying relations with loved ones. At the same time, many decisions of the so-called global élite, whether about war, stock markets, public services or the values that shape our media, suffer from their alienation from the basics of human existence.
In one sense, then, we should be grateful for this uncomfortable book which holds up a true mirror to the underbelly of globalisation. It shows us the real story behind the so-called culture of western contentment, and where we are going very wrong. But it also shows us that to begin to put this right would require nothing short of an economic and cultural revolution.
Melissa Benn's 'Madonna and Child: towards a new politics of motherhood' is published by Vintage
Foundation for Study of Independent Ideas, Inc
by Zelda Bronstein
: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy
edited by Arlie Russell Hochschild
and Barbara Ehrenreich
Metropolitan Books, 2003, 336 pp cloth $26
Owl Books, 2004 288 pp paper $15
lurid news story to come out of Berkeley, California, in the past few years was
the tale of two teenage sisters brought to town from their home in rural India
by a wealthy, middle-aged Berkeley landlord, also of Indian origin, to provide
him with cheap labor and forced sex. The story broke on Thanksgiving Day, 1999,
after the girls had fallen unconscious from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning
in one of the landlord's apartments. The younger sister, aged fifteen, survived.
Her seventeen-year-old sibling died. "If it can happen here," said American
Civil Liberties Union staff attorney Jayashri Srikantiah, "it can happen
In fact, it is happening everywhere. Not just sex slavery, but the larger phenomenon that sex slavery exemplifies in the extreme: activities formerly undertaken by first world women in their homes for free-keeping house, caring for dependents, having sex with a man-are increasingly being performed by third world women for a price, with unsettling effects on both servants and those they serve. This change, profound and vast, involves tens of millions of people. Yet it has remained largely hidden from the public, reported only intermittently by the mainstream media, and then usually as a horror story such as the one sketched above, in which third world female migrants appear as isolated victims.
Telling the real story in the name of feminist solidarity is the stated aim of Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy, a collection of sixteen essays by fifteen authors, including the volume's editors, Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild. The "essential first step," say the editors in their Introduction, is "to bring the world's most invisible women into the light" and to show that they are "strivers as well as victims, wives and mothers as well as workers-sisters, in other words, with whom we in the First World may someday define a common agenda." The way to make that demonstration, say Ehrenreich and Hochschild, is to approach third world female migrants as participants in "the new economy," a.k.a. globalization.
Such an approach further challenges popular perception. The women featured in advertisements for the new economy, familiar to American television viewers and magazine readers, are neither nannies nor maids, and certainly not "sex workers," but stylish executives wielding credit cards and cell phones as they take in the view from a luxury hotel room or run to catch a plane or taxi. In the very different reality disclosed in this book, globalization also involves the movement of a much larger and humbler set of female travelers, the estimated sixty million women who currently make up half the world's migrants. The members of this huge group traverse four major routes: Central and South America to the United States and Canada, the former Soviet bloc to Western Europe, Southeast Asia to the Middle and Far East, and Africa to Europe.
Besides their prodigious
geographic mobility, what qualifies third world female migrants as participants
in the new global economy are their résumés. Female migration and wage labor,
including domestic service and prostitution, have been around for ages. What's
truly new about the new economy is its scope-the unprecedented spread of
for-profit exchange and the cash nexus into human affairs-and the speed at which
this monetized system expands and operates. The careers of third world migrant
women bear manifold witness to this incursion. Most female migrants to the first
world find employment as maids or domestics. The need for their services is
largely occasioned by the fact that those who formerly did the work for free,
their first world female employers, have themselves moved into the full-time
labor market. Widely associated with the rise of second wave feminism, the
wholesale entry of western women into the paid workforce that began in the 1970s
should also be seen as an aspect of the new global economy.
In the wake of women's departure for paid work, an insufficient number of volunteers have taken up the unpaid domestic tasks that require personal attention to either things (cleaning the house, doing the laundry, preparing meals) or people (looking after those who cannot look after themselves-children, the sick, the disabled, the elderly). In particular, fathers and husbands have not shouldered their share of the burden. The result is, in Hochschild's phrase, a gaping "care deficit."
Americans are painfully aware of this deficit's grievous effects on their own lives. Few realize that the same shortfall afflicts many third world domestics and their families. Numerous female migrants are single mothers whose children's fathers are of little or no help in raising their offspring. Migrant women thus confront the same child care issues as do their first world counterparts, with the difficulties exacerbated by separations spanning hundreds or thousands of miles and lasting months or years.
Global Woman aims to show, however, that third world female migrants not only face the same situation as their first world sisters but face it in the same manner: with determination ("as strivers") and with a strong commitment to family ("as mothers and wives"). For some women, migration does offer a way out of a bad marriage or other undesired personal relationships. But the accounts here indicate that migrant mothers' lengthy removals usually signify exceptional dedication, above all to their children. Migrant women typically send home "anywhere from half to nearly all of what they earn," a figure that is all the more impressive given the meagerness of their wages. To cite just one eye-opening example: "Care," writes Rhacel Salazar Parreñas, "is now the [Philippines'] primary export. Remittances-mostly from migrant domestic workers-constitute the economy's largest source of foreign currency, totaling almost $7 billion in 1999."
Often the major if not the sole source of their family's financial support, migrant women can earn significantly more as a maid or a nanny in the first world than in any occupation available to them in their third world homes. That's true even of the professionals among them. In yet another challenge to prevailing stereotypes, Ehrenreich and Hochschild emphasize that an increasing number of migrant females "do not come from the poorest classes of their societies." Nowadays, for example, most of the Mexican-born maids in the United States have graduated from high school and worked in retail, clerical, or professional positions before leaving Mexico. What draws them across the border to the north is the substantially higher pay than they can get for more prestigious jobs in their own country.
It takes courage to choose to leave home to seek work in a strange place. It takes discipline to save what you earn. And it takes resilience to do the work that most third world women do in the first world. Cooking, cleaning house, and looking after children are physically demanding under any conditions. Many mothers and wives who do these tasks for free find them tedious at best. For the migrant women who now do them for pay, these assignments are frequently made more burdensome by long and unpredictable hours, low wages, a lack of health benefits, and chronic job insecurity (domestics are commonly fired without notice). Those who are employed by one of the corporate cleaning services, reports Ehrenreich in her essay on housework, are subjected to "punishing," Taylorized regimens. Most vulnerable of all are live-in servants, isolated in their employers' homes. In the worst-case scenarios, migrant nannies and maids experience physical or sexual abuse, instances of which Joy Zarembka recounts in hair-raising detail.
Such inequities are familiar to those who labor in private, unregulated settings. Contributors to Global Woman point out, however, that maids and nannies also grapple with a difficulty that is specific to domestic service: the emotional strains inherent in "the peculiar intimacy of the employer-employee relationship," as Ehrenreich puts it. Nicole Constable tells how Hong Kong employers use the fiction of family relation to sugar-coat the inordinate demands they place on their live-in Filipina servants. Other contributors describe the genuine affection that frequently springs up between paid caregivers and their charges; the guilt that nannies and other professional attendants feel about bestowing on strangers the tenderness that they are unable to extend to their own, faraway loved ones; and the heartbreak that often follows a sudden dismissal from a household.
And however fortunate a migrant worker's situation, she still has to cope with the first world's general disdain for domestic work. If she's lucky, her employers are people who treat servants with respect. Even so, she's liable to encounter snobbery, often alloyed with racism, in the society at large. Ehrenreich cites the black poet Audré Lorde: "I wheel my two-year-old daughter in a shopping cart through a supermarket . . . and a little white girl riding past in her mother's cart calls out excitedly, 'Oh look, Mommy, a baby maid.'"
After reading Global Woman,
it's hard for one to see the third world female migrants in our midst as
victimized drudges or, worse yet, not to see them at all. In this respect, the
book achieves half of its admirable goal. As envisioned by its editors, however,
Global Woman would not only illuminate the truth of migrant females' lives, but
through such illuminations, enable first world feminists to perceive these women
as sisters with whom they could make common cause. Instead, these writings
expose contemporary feminism's difficulties in bridging the oppositions that now
divide the rich and the poor women of the earth. The essays here leave the
impression that second wave feminists are deeply invested in prevailing economic
and social arrangements, to the extent that even when they discern the injustice
of those arrangements, they cannot bring themselves to demand, much less to
undertake, their overhaul.
The arrangements I have in mind are those of wage labor. It's above all migrant females' participation in the paid workforce that renders them plausible candidates for inclusion in contemporary sisterhood. Today many feminists often equate personal empowerment with the ability to draw a paycheck. The appeal of paid work extends beyond the freedom that comes with having money of one's own, or, better yet, the ability to pay one's own way. There's also the latitude afforded by what Ehrenreich calls "the refreshing impersonality of capitalism." Workers are free to sell their labor to whoever has the means to buy it. When the service has been rendered and the price paid, both sides are free to go their separate ways. Besides liberating individuals from obligations to particular people and places, the cash nexus facilitates the recognition of merit based on objective standards: you first get the job and then get paid for doing it because you can do it, not because of your personal relation to your employer.
Inspired by a vision of independent working women, second wave feminists have been far less forthcoming about the inherent constraints of wage labor. The impersonality of the cash nexus, "refreshing" to those who can avail themselves of its benefits, is debilitating to those who cannot. When labor has become a mere commodity, those who do it are likely to be treated like commodities themselves.
Witness the trafficking of third world women into prostitution. Of the sixty million female migrants in the world, perhaps a few million have been forcibly recruited and transported for sex work. But it would be a mistake to regard trafficking as merely a repulsive sidebar of the more heartening main story about migration. In Global Woman's most comprehensive overview of women, work, and the new economy, Saskia Sassen emphasizes that the conditions that foster trafficking are at bottom the same ones that motivate less vulnerable, more resourceful third world women to choose to leave home in search of a livelihood. In both cases, women move under the press of circumstances that typify globalized third world economies: the dominance of big foreign companies and export industries; the devastation of small- and medium-sized enterprises oriented to national markets; high unemployment, particularly among men; massive and growing government debt; the imposition of draconian fiscal terms by international lenders; severe cutbacks in social and health services; and the drastic shrinkage of the middle class accompanied by increasing extremes of wealth and poverty. "When local manufacturing and agriculture no longer provide jobs, profits or government revenue," writes Sassen, "a once marginal economic wellspring industry becomes a far more important one."
Trafficking is of course roundly condemned in Global Woman. And trafficking apart, every contributor to the volume recognizes that the new economy has visited suffering and injustice on third world peoples. But the extent and nature of that recognition vary widely. In general, the stronger the commitment to wage labor as women's best chance, the weaker the inclination to mark the destructive side of globalization.
So, for example, of the four
essays that focus on migrants' places of origin, only one, Kevin Bales's study
of sex slavery in Thailand, draws out the structural connections between female
migration and the exigencies of unrestrained industrial capitalism. It's also
the one of the four that does not view freedom from the vantage of second wave
feminism, proceeding instead from the broader perspective of antislavery
Bales recognizes that industrialization has benefited women by affording them unprecedented opportunities for education and gainful employment, to the point where procurers are having trouble recruiting poor and ignorant Thai girls into prostitution. Nor does Bales blame sex slavery in Thailand exclusively on the country's globalized economy. His nuanced analysis traces complex interactions among many factors: breakneck industrialization and urbanization, widespread political corruption, a flourishing sex industry nourished by newly rampant mass consumerism, and a tradition of polygamy. All the same, Bales does not shrink from marking the "horrific" effects for women that occur when all of the above combine with "the new economy's relentless drive for profits." "Indeed," he writes, "the work of the modern slaveholder is best seen not as aberrant criminality but as a perfect example of disinterested capitalism." In short, Bales presents the new economy as a deeply mixed blessing.
By contrast, the ambiguities of globalization get short shrift, when they get any attention at all, in Salazar Parreñas's examination of the care crisis in the Philippines, Michele Gamburd's portrait of shifting gender relations in Sri Lanka, and Denise Brennan's study of prostitutes in the Dominican Republic. In these essays, the globalized economy appears principally as a means of melioration for the gutsy women who exploit its singular opportunities. The authors aim their most vigorous criticism at moralizing backlashes against migrant females' assertiveness, while downplaying or disregarding altogether the depredations of transnational capitalism.
But it's when those depredations are acknowledged and subsequently discounted, as they are in Arlie Hochschild's article on cash and care in the new economy, that the obfuscating effects of contemporary feminism's faith in wage labor are most evident. Folding heart-rending sketches of migrant mothers separated from their children by years and miles into a larger, statistically detailed picture of "the growing split between the global rich and poor," Hochschild proposes that we regard the wholesale removal of third world women to first world nurseries as a new form of imperialism. For centuries the powerful have seized gold, oil, and other natural resources from the weak; nowadays, she says, they also extract love, or its facsimile. Like their predecessors, the expropriators of care get what they want through force. But rather than holding a gun to anyone's head, today's affective imperialists operate through indirect means of coercion, namely, the instruments of economic domination that have so impoverished the third world as to have impelled massive numbers of women to seek work abroad. Though migrant women suffer plenty under this regime, the worst victims of "the new emotional imperialism" are their children, whose mothers' firsthand devotion has been sold off to the wealthy parents of the first world.
Having spun this powerful metaphor, Hochschild proceeds to back away from it, as she considers how to make amends for the injustice she has just described. Redressing the new imperialism would mean restoring migrant mothers' love to their children, a restitution that can be accomplished only by enabling mothers and children to stay together. The most obvious solution, Hochschild concedes, would be to increase opportunity in the third world to such an extent that there would be no economic advantage in leaving. She calls this option "ideal" but unrealistic. Once you have development, she contends, migration is inevitable.
But there's another reason that Hochschild's not interested in trying to discourage migration: first world women's professional prospects depend on an ample supply of nannies. "In all developed societies," she writes, "women work at paid jobs…. If we want developed societies with women doctors, political leaders, teachers, bus drivers, and computer programmers, we will need qualified people to give loving care to their children." Meaning, as she goes on to say, "loving paid child care."
If Hochschild had followed
out the implications of her parable of empire, the mistresses of the first world
would figure as agents, however unwitting, of the new emotional imperialism.
Instead, they appear in the sympathetic guise of time-bound working mothers. The
pivotal tension no longer revolves around the "growing split between the rich
and the poor" but the gap between the number of hours in a day and the
cumulative demands of child care and career-building. Granted, Hochschild urges
that the migrant nannies who fill that gap be given proper respect, decent
wages, and the means to enable their children to migrate with them or "to
receive all the care they need," presumably in the third world. But as much as
these measures would improve the lives of migrant women and their children, they
would do little to narrow the global chasm between poverty and wealth. Indeed,
by the end of the essay, the image of that abyss has disappeared, as has talk of
coercion and capitalism. In their place are references to "development," with
its reassuring aura of progress.
Saskia Sassen's less reassuring commentary offers a foil for the circumventions of this feminist discourse. Like Bales, Sassen doesn't allow a recognition of wage labor's real if limited empowerment of some women to trump a critique of the more general "immiserization" fostered by global capital. When Sassen contemplates migrants' female employers, the first thing she sees is not deserving women doctors, bus drivers, and computer programmers who need quality child care but members of an elite whose privileged status requires the support of cheap service. Homing in on the "global cities" where the management of the new economy is concentrated, Sassen marks the rise of a "transnational professional class" of global administrators. Their managerial corporate jobs pay exceedingly well but leave little time for life outside of work. Short on time but long on money, the women and men of this new urban gentry hire others to look after their households and their offspring. It's their "consumption practices," says Sassen, that "generate a demand for maids and nannies as well as low-wage workers in expensive restaurants and shops." That demand is being filled by fugitives from the pauperized third world, fleeing conditions that their first world employers' services to global capital help to produce and sustain.
Sassen's essay offers analysis, not remedies. But insofar as it ties the privileged status of first world women to the prerogatives of corporate capitalism and industrial culture, her discussion suggests the formidable challenges that await feminists seeking mutuality between migrant women and their female employers. Those who want to see the women of the poor "south" struggle with, instead of against, their sisters in the rich "north" will have to dispute the legitimacy of corporate authority and capital mobility and contrive alternative legal and economic modes of enterprise that can be held democratically accountable. They will also have to envision ideals of comfort and prosperity that lead to more equitable outcomes than the ones engendered by the industrial goals of maximum production and consumption.
Nobody writing in Global
Woman broaches so radical a program-not even Barbara Ehrenreich, who offers the
book's most astute critique of the injuries of class. A superficial observer of
a mistress and her migrant maid might conclude that only the servant is harmed
by the gross disparities between their power and prestige. Ehrenreich recognizes
that the mistress also suffers-from an impairment of character. It may seem
fatuous to speak of a moral injury sustained by the women of the first world,
given the material hardships borne by the women of the third. But the moral
detriment that concerns Ehrenreich exacerbates those hardships by reinforcing
the sense of entitlement claimed by the mistresses (and masters) of the world.
Echoing Sassen, Ehrenreich contends that we should not allow "the opportunities, however limited," that domestic service affords poor and immigrant women to hide the fact that paid housework allows those who are doing the paying to escape responsibility for the messes they make. The "consequence-abolishing effect" of a servant economy, she says, "breeds callousness and solipsism in the served." This is strong medicine. But Ehrenreich dispenses stronger yet. She assails academic feminists for having lost interest in "the politics of housework" because, like "a sizeable portion of the nation's opinion makers and culture producers," they've stopped cleaning their own homes and started hiring somebody else to do it for them.
Ehrenreich's iconoclasm is, however, erratic. Though she bemoans affluent Americans' unwillingness to pick up after themselves, she also deems the "outsourcing" of domestic work "unstoppable" and regret over the loss of skills such as home cooking and sewing "reactionary." At the end of her essay, where we might expect an appeal for accountability and a corresponding transformation of daily life, we find a mere call to make visible the physical labor "that goes into creating and maintaining a livable habitat." But the problem, as she has shown, isn't that people can't see such labor; it's that they don't want to. Still more disconcerting is her closing equivocation. "The feminists of my generation," writes one of its most celebrated representatives, "tried to bring some of [this indispensable physical work] into the light of day, but, like busy professional women fleeing the house in the morning, they left the project unfinished, the debate broken off in mid-sentence, the noble intentions unfulfilled. Sooner or later, someone else will have to finish the job." Someone else? Ehrenreich's last-minute reprieve of the truant sisterhood exemplifies nothing so much as the "consequence-abolishing" attitude she so rightly deplores.
That said, the job remains to
be done. Two jobs, actually-recovering the work that makes the earth a home and
recovering the feminism that respects such work and the people who do it.
Ehrenreich points, unsteadily, to this double mission. But she, along with most
of her sisterly cohort, misses two of the major tasks it involves: righting the
skewed relations between the home and the marketplace and getting men to assume
their fair share of responsibility for domestic life. Given that, unlike class
issues, these are matters around which the working women of the first and third
worlds could even now take a joint stand, a feminism that neglects them is
Women's lives are being consumed by the exigencies of paid work, be they the requisites of advancement in a prestigious institutional career or the terms of employment in a dead-end domestic job. Second wave activists have campaigned for affordable child care and for paid family and medical leave, programs that would greatly benefit working parents and their children. What they haven't defended is unpaid moral commitment. On the contrary, they've generally abetted the commodification of personal relations and home life. In Global Woman, their accommodation of the market can be inferred from their characterizations of the family as "a flexible preindustrial institution" (Hochschild) and "an adaptive unit that responds to external forces" (Salazar Parreñas)-which is to say, the forces of corporate capitalism and industrial culture. Along the same lines, Ehrenreich commends the "radical" character of the "wages for housework" campaign mounted by Marxist feminists in the early seventies and rues its decline. But if radical means challenging the dominant order, such a program is just the opposite. Paying people to clean their own homes or-taking this idea to its logical conclusion-to care for their own children or parents or others who can't care for themselves would extend the cash nexus further into personal and domestic spheres.
The extent to which that nexus defines second wavers' priorities is further evidenced by their talk of "care work" and "sex work." Presumably, the use of these neologisms is intended to elevate the activities they designate, otherwise known as care and prostitution. Given that since the late nineteenth century, Americans have associated real work with wage labor performed outside the home, the new terms reflect feminists' predilection for monetized transactions. "Prostitution" carries a moral charge; "sex work" has the antiseptic ring of a business contract. Less jarringly, the shift from "care" to "care work" has the same morally neutralizing effect. This linguistic makeover obscures the fundamental differences between care rendered in the context of a moral commitment and care rendered in the context of a monetary exchange, and it does so at the expense of the moral, not the monetary, variety. By providing an abstract medium that expresses equivalencies among essentially disparate objects, money fosters interchangeability. But interchangeability is inimical to moral commitment, which is founded in obligations between or among specific individuals. The spatial qualities of these two modes are similarly disparate. Because monetary relationships are essentially impersonal, they can be transacted and sustained over great distances. Moral relationships, on the other hand, are essentially personal and thus local. Yes, people can care for each other over great separations of time and distance, but it's hard to keep it going, as illustrated by Global Woman's stories of how love grows between migrant women and the strangers they care for, but languishes between these women and their own distant children. It's the recognition of this truth that motivates Hochschild's proposal that we devise ways to enable migrant women to bring their children with them. What's true of love holds for any moral commitment: you have to be there to make it happen.
Which brings us to the issue
of men's absence from the domestic sphere of responsibility. This is perhaps the
least considered subject in Global Woman, which is odd in light of the
importance it's assigned. According to Ehrenreich and Hochschild, the crisis in
care is basically men's fault. In light of that charge, you'd expect to find
considerable resentment toward men in this book, as well as some intensive
analysis of male fecklessness and some bold proposals for male reformation.
Instead, the focus is mainly on the failings of the first world mistresses with
whom most migrant servants have the most direct dealings, even when they're
working for a heterosexual couple. Whereas women's work and family relations are
fleshed out in vivid anecdote and subjected to detailed analysis, the situation
of men, and in particular connections between male dereliction and the new
economy, go largely unexamined. As for reformation: Hochschild cites Norway,
where employed men are eligible for a year's paternity leave at 90 percent pay,
as "a model to the world."
But it will take a lot more than paternity leave to reform the men glimpsed in Global Woman. In the whole book, which presents the findings of fifteen authors who range across continents and cultures, there's only one example of a domestically active male-an unmarried, unemployed, and hence socially marginal Sri Lankan who keeps house for his mother and the children of his sister-in-law, who works as a domestic servant in the Middle East. In any case, shirking housework and child-rearing appears to be the least of men's offenses. Almost without exception, men here are scoundrels who abandon their children and spouses (if they bother to marry in the first place), harass their female servants, own brothels, traffic in women, patronize sex slaves, and/or squander their migrant wives' hard-earned wages on liquor. Global man comes across as an incorrigible jerk.
Men may often act like jerks, but they are not incorrigible, as even the scant evidence in Global Woman suggests. In a tantalizing paragraph, Ehrenreich reports that between 1965 and 1995 American men increased their share of cleaning, "the most despised of household chores," by 240 percent. To be sure, in 1995 men still devoted only 1.7 hours per week to housecleaning, and women were still doing far more-6.7 hours a week. The essential point, though, is that men changed for the better. Noting that almost all the increase in male activity occurred between the 1970s and the mid-1980s, Ehrenreich emphasizes the demands issued by women in the period's "chore wars." With "the cessation of hostilities," she says, male improvement came to an end.
The moral of this story is that if women want men to do their fair share, they have to ask-make that, insist-that they do so. But such exhortation will be effective only if it is legitimated by a larger mutual commitment. For most men and women, that means the commitment of marriage, an institution that second wave feminists have generally neglected, not to say, scorned. And because marriage vows, like other promises, stand the best chance of being upheld when the pledges at hand are practicable, women need to campaign for changes in the conditions of employment that will enable working men to come through at home. A good start would be to demand shorter and more flexible hours across the board for both men and women. Whatever the specifics, family life needs to be given its due.
These efforts call out for vigorous feminist leadership in the first world and the third. To read Global Woman is to begin to see the work-paid and unpaid, mental and physical-that will be required for such leadership to emerge. It's also to grasp the urgency of doing it.
Bronstein, a writer and community activist, lives in Berkeley.