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Pay your cleaner what you earn, or clean up yourself

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If everyone did their share, no one would be forced to do housework as a second shift or as their primary source of income writes Arianne Shahvisi

“No I haven’t [ever changed a nappy]. I don’t think nanny would approve because I’m sure she’d think I wouldn’t do it properly.” Jacob Rees-Mogg, father of six.

“There’s boy jobs and girl jobs you see.” Theresa May.

Women’s labour; men’s leisure

While gender roles are slowly changing in the public domain, what goes on behind closed doors is less encouraging. Figures from 2016 show that men in the UK do 60% less housework than women, and subsequently enjoy an extra five hours of leisure time each week. Their leisure time has increased over the last 15 years while women’s has decreased. Women are still undertaking the “double burden,” or the “second shift,” as they return from paid work outside the home to the lion’s share of unpaid work inside the home. These figures do not account for the extra time women spend providing emotional labour to those around them, sometimes known as the “third shift,” or bearing the mental load of household management.

While some men are on the road to parity in terms of taking on their share of the unpaid labour of food preparation and raising children, cleaning and tidying remain starkly gendered. There are easy explanations for this. Cooking and child-care are high-reward chores: they are visible and accrue social brownie points, and for many people they are pleasurable tasks in their own right. Making a meal means having a meal to enjoy, a tangible outcome which may draw praise from those who share it. Likewise, taking a child to the park can be fun, and (at least for fathers) often attracts approval from onlookers. By contrast, cleaning and tidying are boring, repetitive, and unrewarding. Nobody notices you’ve done it or praises you for it, and everything swiftly reverts to mess and filth again. And when it does, women are judged more harshly for unclean homes.

Just last year, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority intervened to ban adverts which portray women as being left to clear up after their families, or represent men as incapable parents and homemakers. Yet unequal contributions to housework are inscribed into heteronormative notions of gender. This is most vivid in households in which women begin to earn more than their husbands, where studies show that men experience “gender role threat,” which causes them to undertake even less domestic work as a way of protecting their masculinity.

Passing the buck

A third of UK households now employ a cleaner on a regular basis, as people claim they are too busy and would rather avoid the disputes caused by negotiating housework. Interestingly, this choice is most likely to be made by those under the age of 35, indicating a shift in social attitudes almost 100 years after playwright J. B. Priestley declared domestic service to be “as obsolete as the horse” in the era of cars. Some of this is undoubtedly related to changes in household set-ups. With more young people renting together in multiple-occupancy arrangements, the once-dominant nuclear family model is disrupted, leaving households with no wife or mother as an obvious candidate to be lumbered with the bulk of the domestic work.

Further, all sorts of daily labour is now outsourced, especially amongst younger people. It is now common to pay someone else to walk your dog, wrap and post your parcels, or even provide pre-chopped sets of meal ingredients by post. Are people really so busy? And who are those whose leisure has become so precious? Are the people who clean their homes able to outsource their labour?

Who does the cleaning?

Across the world, the demand for outsourced domestic work is rising, particularly in high-income world regions. There are now 67 million domestic workers globally, 12 million of whom are migrants, and almost all of whom are women of colour. In every world region, outsourced domestic work is racialized: people pass on their “dirty work” to those who are racially subjugated within their society.  It is also work that is strongly characterised by asymmetries of gender, class, and nationality. Migrant domestic workers have few labour protections, and often work excessively long days, are paid meagre salaries that may be delayed or withheld, and may suffer physical, sexual and verbal abuse. The necessarily private nature of the work makes regulation almost impossible. In the EU, care-work and domestic work is the largest employment sector for migrant women, many of whom are undocumented.

While live-in domestic workers may seem to be a relic of a bygone age, or a quirk of distant cultures, but there are now more live-in domestic workers in London than there were two centuries ago. Even so, the norm for outsourced domestic work in the UK is to employ a weekly household cleaner. Foreign-born workers, some of them irregular migrants, are vastly over-represented within these jobs. They rarely have contracts, are generally paid cash-in-hand, and are unlikely to be paid a living wage, especially once the costs of travel and cleaning materials are factored in. Wherever it is outsourced, cleaning is always low-paid: cleaners working at Buckingham Palace are paid less than the London Living Wage. In a bitter twist of irony, cleaners at the Ministry of Justice walked out over unjust pay earlier this month. While its effects are widely enjoyed, cleaning is vastly under-valued. The reasoning seems to be that because housework is mostly unpaid, where it is outsourced it can’t be worth very much.

The cost of a clean conscience

If people outsource cleaning chiefly to save themselves time, they should presumably pay the cleaner for the cost of that time. That would seem to be a fair exchange. Let’s see how that would look in practice. An average UK employee earns £518 each week for working an average of 37 hours. Accounting for lunch breaks and statutory paid leave—to which a cleaner is generally not entitled—this means that an average person earns £18.14 per actual working hour. Adding in £3 for a return bus fare, a cleaner should therefore be paid £21.14 to clean for an hour, or £39.28 for a two-hour session (and more for those based in London). To tackle a couple of obvious objections: while your commute might not be paid for, consider that you’d expect it to be if you needed to travel around from job-to-job all day long in order to make a living; and while a cleaner might avoid tax if paid cash-in-hand, they then lose out on certain benefits (a state pension or maternity allowance), so it’s swings and roundabouts.

But the average household cleaner in London earns just £8.89 per hour, less than half of the figure just calculated. You might argue that the difference in earnings accounts for the debt and non-earnings of those who have spent years studying (yet note that migrant workers are often themselves well-educated), or that cleaners’ employers are more highly-skilled (again, debateable). Surely such people deserve to earn more than their cleaners? Yet those who study do so for the sake of education, or to access a rewarding job. It is not obvious at all that their time should subsequently be worth more than that of others. Regardless, they always have the option of quitting their job and having an “easy ride” as a cleaner. They also have the option of cleaning up after themselves.

In short, if somebody saves you time by doing your cleaning, and you don’t pay that person what your time is worth, it must be concluded that you value your time above theirs. In that case, outsourced cleaning is a moral problem because it is a nod to a system in which some people’s labour is worth less than other people’s leisure, and that’s a recipe for all manner of inequalities. While this disparity is true of many jobs, the difference is that you aren’t employing those people; your cleaner is your employee, and you have a chance to do things differently.

We must also push against the view that paying people to clean our houses is in their best interests, since it provides employment. That disingenuous assertion belongs to a broader logic which protects the current economic system, and twins with the vacuous argument that sweatshops are justifiable on the grounds that they provide work to desperate people whose alternative is starvation. Is it really so hard to think outside the economic script? In the case under consideration the disquieting logical conclusion is that if we can afford to do so, we should outsource all of our intimate labour in order to generously create more jobs. It might begin to look mean-spirited for a high-earner not to outsource their teeth-cleaning, handbag-tidying, and anal hygiene to a person desperate for work.

The future of domestic work

Women still perform the bulk of the world’s unpaid reproductive labour, but those who can afford to do so are increasingly shifting this work onto others, generally poor migrant women. As women join men in the full-time paid workforce, care-work and domestic work are not so much shared as delegated to a less privileged group, who become the surrogate women of the victorious masculine model of using power to shirk one’s responsibilities. It is a particularly obstinate example of men refusing to change their ways so that the world must change for them. Globalisation has supplied a cheap workforce which has expediently allowed us to dodge the difficult task of obtaining gender inequality in our homes. Poor women are used to shelter middle-class men from cleaning up after themselves, while middle-class women’s emancipation from housework comes at the cost of reinscribing poor women’s ties to it.

While the urgent short-term priority must undoubtedly be to demand fair pay and decent working conditions for cleaners, that surely cannot be the long-term goal. In all sectors we must push for working hours that leave all people with sufficient time for reproductive labour, and then men must do their share of that work. Unrewarding as housework can be, it is fundamental to any notion of equality that we do not consent to an arrangement in which some people are obliged to serve others and to cobble together a low-income life out of other people’s tedious labour as well as their own.

If everyone did their share, no one would be forced to do housework as a second shift or as their primary source of income. It is only through performing our own reproductive labour that we are liable to realise how much effort goes into producing the nominal conditions for a pleasant existence. And only then will we appreciate the enormous social value of those who have for so long been relegated to that work.

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Arianne Shahvisi is a Kurdish-British academic philosopher, based in Brighton. She has research interests in race, gender, and migration. Arianne serves as an editorial board member for Kohl, a feminist journal on gender and sexuality in the Middle East, South West Asia, and North Africa regions, and is science editor for literary magazine The Offing, which seeks out and supports work by those marginalized in literary spaces.


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