by Paul Segal on January 30, 2023

I was 28 when I first got a maid. She wasn’t even my maid. My partner and I spent a year renting a flat in Mexico City from friends-of-friends, a well-to-do family who were abroad, and who paid their maid to keep coming while we stayed at their place. So she was taking care of their home as much as she was taking care of us. Young, childless, unbothered by moderate levels of messiness, I wasn’t that comfortable with someone so intimately handling my stuff.

My partner, being from an elegant part of Buenos Aires (I’m from an ugly part of London), found my attitude to our maid baffling, even bothersome, my naivety, my lack of understanding that one person dedicating their work hours to cleaning up after another person was really quite normal. There is a saying in Mexico that the maid is la felicidad de la casa, the happiness of the house. A professor we met there told us that she had wanted to dedicate her PhD to her two (two!) nannies, without whom her distinguished academic career would not have been possible.

Youth is wasted on the young; in my case, domestic service too. Now, 17 years later, drowning daily in childcare, cooking, washing, shopping, driving back and forth to ballet, art, swimming, I can say the taste for it is well and truly acquired.

But here in the UK, the economics just don’t add up. Another academic Mexican friend (in a private university) told me his salary and that of his maid a few years ago; paying her full time cost about 20 percent of his take-home pay. (Remarkably, while his income didn’t quite get him to the top 1 percent, this small fraction he paid her still meant she was better paid than nearly 90 percent of Mexican workers. That’s what high inequality looks like.) For me in the UK, with a comparable job to him, I would have had to pay double the share, a little over 40 percent of my salary. La felicidad in the UK would cost me a lot more. Poor me, and my wife, and our children who have to put up with overwrought and distracted parents.

That felicidad, of course, is pretty one-sided. It doesn’t take much digging to find out how domestic workers themselves view all of this.

Judith Rollins’s classic study of domestic work in the USA describes the mistress–servant relationship as ‘an extreme and “pure” example of a relationship of domination in close quarters’ and reports that ‘all domestics concurred that employers appreciated some forms of deference and outward signs of subservience’. In Mexico I’ve heard examples of maids being subjected to physical abuse, to daily humiliations, and to threats that if they didn’t vote for right-wing parties then they would lose their jobs.

Three films document this relationship in highly unequal Latin American countries – the Chilean La Nana (2009), the Brazilian Que Horas Ela Volta? (2015) and the Mexican Roma (2018). All portray the lives of a live-in nanny/maid in the home of an elite household – these days not the most common form of domestic service even in these countries, but probably the most extreme. All three portray the intensive affective relationships between the domestic worker and the children of the family, and the neglect of the worker’s own needs and desires. In the case of Que Horas Ela Volta? the domestic worker has left her own daughter to care for the son of her employers, and the affective bond between her and the boy is stronger than that between him and his own mother, and between the nanny and her own daughter. In La Nana the maid has internalised her employers’ desires to the point of abnegating her own needs. In all three the bland indifference of the employer to the well-being of their employee demonstrate extreme cases of what philosopher Elizabeth Anderson describes as “a profound asymmetry in whose interests count”.

So is domestic service wrong? The US political activist Barbara Ehrenreich remarked that she found the idea of employing a cleaner ‘repugnant’ because ‘this is not the kind of relationship that I want to have with another human being’. Other feminist writers have pointed out that there are circumstances under which the job is no worse than other waged employment, and sometimes better. I’m more inclined to the latter view, and in particular that it depends a lot on the degree of economic inequality. (But I tend to think most things depend on the degree of inequality.)

This is a big discussion. But here’s an interesting new datum that my colleague Marion Lieutaud and I recently found: of the (not many) countries where we have the data, the one with the highest share of households who pay for some form of domestic work is not Latin American, and it doesn’t have a high level of inequality. It’s Belgium. In Belgium, 22 percent of households, ranging across the entire income distribution – including around one tenth of the poorest 10 percent of households – pay for some domestic work. This is not full time work for a single household, of course. The average is no more than a few hours per week.

It turns out that part of the explanation is that the Belgian government pays a very substantial subsidy for domestic service, meaning the employer pays a lot less than what the employee receives. So could this be what a social democratic, moderately-egalitarian domestic service industry looks like? An essential service, particularly useful to women (given our regrettably-resilient gender norms), paid fairly, fragmented enough not to produce special affective burdens, and subsidized by the government.

Can that felicidad, the relief of outsourcing some of your social reproduction labour to a professional, be egalitarian?



Salem 01.30.23 at 1:40 pm

I tend to view it as a continuum.

You could pay someone to come to your house and do your ironing. You could send your shirts away to be ironed. You could buy non-iron shirts.

You could pay someone to come to your house and cook. You could buy meal-prep kits. You could go to a restaurant.

And so on.

I don’t see any of these positions as particularly more egalitarian than any other. If someone is ironing my shirts for me, why is it inegalitarian if they do it at my house, but egalitarian if they do it at the dry cleaners? Does the exact same work transform in nature based on location? Or is the key distinction who the employer is? So if I hire a maid, that’s awful, but if I hire a cleaning company who send a maid (and take a cut of their wage), I’m in the clear?

Increased “capitalisation” doesn’t necessarily the workers’ lot – it’s not like workers in garment factories or restaurants are known for having great working conditions (and servers are expected to show just as much deference to customers as maids to householders). Obviously the nature of the “capitalisation” is going to change over time – washing machines are now a commonplace, but they actually represent the capitalisation of what was once a hard manual task. And maybe one day we’ll have advanced AI that can clean your whole house for you, but it still won’t spring from the brow of Zeus – people will be programming, supporting and maintaining that AI, digging the rare earths to make the chips, etc etc etc.

But increased capitalisation of domestic labour does two things. Firstly, it professionalises the process, which may remove the worst abuses, but also removes the best successes. Again, I don’t see anything particularly egalitarian or remarkable here – outside of domestic labour, many people work for large multinationals, and others work for family-run small businesses, and it’s as much a matter of taste as anything else.

But the second thing it does is provide a layer of indirection, so that people like Ehrenreich can avoid unequal relationships (while they tip their waitress). But I don’t want to make too much of the hypocrisy, because in many ways it’s a successful endeavour – they get other people to have those unequal relationships for them.

If you have domestic servants, even for a few hours a week, you are an employer, and you should treat them with the consideration, fairness and reliability an employer owes their employees. For example, I have a friend who sometimes forgets to pay his cleaner, and I (jokingly but pointedly) asked him how he would feel if his employer failed to pay him promptly. But if you’re going to treat your employees properly, I don’t see why domestic labour isn’t every bit as worthy as any other endeavour.


Ray Vinmad 01.30.23 at 1:42 pm

That Barbara Ehrenreich comment always nagged at me for two reasons. First, I am terrible at domestic work. Second, other people are good at it. So it seemed to dis both me and whomever I might hire. Domestic work involves actual talent. So are you a disgusting person if you don’t have this talent? And shouldn’t we admire this talent in other people?

Maybe she was only speaking for herself, and she prides herself on her talent so it would be shameful for her to hire someone to do something she is good at. But I think she did mean that people who hire domestic labor are exploiting people to do something for them that they could do themselves.

But what about people who are not good at it? They will naturally seek assistance. It is skilled labor!

I don’t hire anyone to do it, by the way. But I obviously need someone talented to help me at this important aspect of life because I spend many hours on it and I do a rotten job.

One of the problems isn’t simply that it is low-paid but that it is considered lowly work. Obviously, essential work should never be lowly. Our culture is created an illusion that the people we need the most are somehow expendable when the opposite is the case. Even the pandemic could not dispel this illusion.

Particularly, domestic work is not lowly since we admire people who are good at this if they do it for themselves. So why wouldn’t we admire people who are good at this if they do it for other people?

Nevertheless, there’s no getting away from the exploitative origins of it. Though if I could give away half my salary and still keep food on the table and someone could come and help me with my general domestic catastrophe, it would feel worth the money. I’d much rather spend my money on domestic assistance than pay for a car, a television set, or a vacation.

But I suspect even if I was rich and could pay handsomely, I would not do it.

Everyone who has ever tried to do domestic labor for themselves knows that it’s a significant job, and that the person who does it well has a valuable skill. So clearly they are admirable in a way some of us are not. Except the historical denigration of domestic labor in order to more easily exploit those who do it means there’s no way to integrate these facts into the situation. Likely there is no way to break out of the history of domestic servitude as exploitation, and the class relationship and perhaps this is why Ehrenreich implies there is something skeevy about it.

Maybe it’s the intimacy as well as a racial and gender element. When you hire laborers and they are skilled but in the trades, there’s not much sense that you are in some creepy ‘Upstairs-Downstairs’ situation. Their skill and your need somehow puts you on an equal footing. They are also likely to be men, and their expertise and labor generally commands some respect. The people we are likely to hire in our homes that have this overhang of exploitation are gardeners and housekeepers, perhaps because they typically were the last resort jobs given to people severely racially discriminated against in the labor market. Even if the person you hire is a writer or graduate student, it won’t fully absolve the situation of those overtones whatever skills they bring to bear to assist you.

The childcare situation is similarly fraught because the fair amount of money to pay someone to take care of one’s children is clearly an enormous amount of money, more than most people can pay. Economically speaking, we have to get someone to take care of our children because otherwise we will lose our place in the labor market. Except whatever we pay them is likely to be insufficient even if it is all we can afford. (I’m assuming it has to include medical and vacations and be well above minimum or you should not be hiring anyone to care for your children. But this is still not enough, when you think about what they do.)

So ultimately, the situation is clearly for the government to come in and make up the salaries. Unfortunately, in the USA, teachers in certain states make poverty wages. So if they won’t pay teachers more than $35,000 a year after 10 years of teaching, we certainly could never expect any payments to early childcare workers. It’s obviously what should happen but I don’t see it ever happening.


engels 01.30.23 at 4:05 pm

Interesting post. I would say that hiring a maid isn’t morally wrong: having enough money that you can afford to hire a maid is morally wrong, and in a lot of cases whatever you do to earn that money is too. Regardless of morality it is repugnant, as Ehrenreich says.


Adam Hammond 01.30.23 at 5:44 pm

Isn’t the story of progressive labor specialization full of cases similar to this? Some people, early on, must have been shocked at the idea of eating food that you had no personal hand in gathering or processing. You don’t know how or by whom your intimate bits of clothing were sewn. Anonymous people cary your water and bury your waste (metaphorically). What remains as domestic service are the bits that are not transportable. And with childcare, they can cary a tremendous emotional weight. We set our garbage outside, so that the job of garbage collector can be waged labor. You are suggesting that we can create emotional separation in domestic service by dividing the work among groups of people. I see a cleaning service, a daycare center, an in-home care team, a school bus fleet. So, yes, if we paid these people enough to live with dignity it does not destroy an egalitarian vision. It requires recognition of the societal value of those specialized occupations. (But some individual has to bond with the children, right?)


John Q 01.30.23 at 6:20 pm

Coincidentally, I’ve just been discussing the other side of the coin with Chris Bertram on Mastodon (and crossposted to Twitter). There’s also movement in the opposite direction, with tasks that were previously outsourced (laundry services for example) being performed in-house (thanks to washing machines). Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s More Work for Mother is the classic work here. As the name implies, the move in-house typically means “to be performed by women”.

I had a go at this topic a while ago.


Trader Joe 01.30.23 at 8:14 pm

I’ve employed domestic help for decades. I could see the pushback if I was sitting around doing nothing whilst paying someone else to clean-up after me. I’m not. My wife and I are each employed in jobs that always run 60 hours a week and routinely run to +70. The help we get each week is what keeps the place in order so that we can work the schedule we do, spend our limited free time productively and quality time with our children (at least when they were at home we did).

I very much identify with the notion that the helpers are a joy of the household. We trust them immensely. The tasks performed are the least of it. They work unsupervised in our home. They know more about us than our neighbors. What we eat, what meds we take, where we keep our checkbooks, where our valuables are etc.. An abusive relationship would be foolish and wrong, you should want a constructive relationship.

Over +25 years we’ve had only two pairs of helpers – a husband and wife team (now retired) and our current pair a woman and her niece. Wages have varied over time, but we currently get 4 to 5 hours of help a week and pay $25/hour. All supplies, equipment etc. are provided by us. Their are standard tasks they do every week which take a bit over half the time and then a rota of other one off or occasional tasks which comprise the rest of the time.

By way of bringing some humanization to the discussion, our current helper Isabella is the primary caregiver for her grandmother who has several medical issues. The time she devotes to that task largely precludes a normal hourly wage job. She also has school age children and she manages her schedule so she can provide care, earn some money and still be home for her children after school. She has told us regularly that the flexibility we provide (and the money) makes a big difference in managing her other responsibilities. I think she helps 3 families on a weekly basis and has a couple more that are on a less frequent basis.

Clearly I have a biased perspective but I don’t see that contracting help inside ones home is any different than any other service you seek. You set a fair price and you treat people respectfully and honestly – no different than a barber, a dry-cleaner or a restaurant server. I don’t doubt that some people treat their help poorly but lets call it what it is – plain and simple assholery likely mixed with some bigotry, misogeny and a dash of racism. Its not automatically an equality and exploitation problem.


engels 01.30.23 at 8:41 pm

Domestic work involves actual talent. So are you a disgusting person if you don’t have this talent?

Having lived with a number of such people as flatmates, I’m going to go with “yes”.


Alex SL 01.30.23 at 9:57 pm

It is one thing to have a cleaning or gardening service that services a lot of households; that is specialisation and economies of scale and of the same kind as paying a painter or removalist for their services. But yes, the kind of arrangement where a household has a domestic servant only for that household is logically only possible under circumstances of enormous economic inequality.

That immediately informs why I am “against it”, although that is really putting the cart before the horse. The question is not one of being against domestic servitude, but of being against the degree of inequality that makes it economically viable. If that were solved, the domestic servitude would disappear by itself, without being disapproved of publicly.

In this context a recent comment from some Republican politician comes to mind who negatively contrasted some European country against the USA because due to higher taxes in the former, people there couldn’t afford a nanny. It is kind of inherent in that argument that she doesn’t consider the nannies themselves to be “people”.


Tra James 01.30.23 at 10:26 pm

To your big question “is domestic service wrong?” I think the answer is no. There is no intrinsic immorality to hiring someone to help keep your house in order as long as they are willing to provide the service and you’re willing to pay them fairly. However, if we alter your question to “can domestic service be exploitive?” the answer is obviously yes and the exploitive factor seems to be what’s actually being discussed here.

Anecdotally, I have 2nd/3rd hand experience with both exploitative and non-exploitative domestic service. Both of my grandmothers and my mother were domestic service workers in the US South. All of them are/were black women and their experiences were wildly different. My paternal grandmother lived in Jim Crow Alabama where domestic service was one of the few occupations she could have. She worked for an affluent white family most of her life who were, according to my father’s account, generally nice people but acutely aware of the class differences between themselves and their help (my grandmother). The relationship displayed much of the “profound asymmetry in whose interests count” characteristic you mentioned in your piece with my grandmother spending the vast majority of her waking hours tending to the needs of this family at the direct expense of her own house. Naturally, this caused friction in my father’s home with both my grandparent’s marital relationship and my grandmother’s ability to be a mother. I suspect this was not a unique situation for the black domestic servants of that time and place.

Around the same time, my maternal grandmother was a housekeeper for the catholic priests at the local diocese. She worked a steady schedule of 9-5 with her day ending with dinner being served around 430pm every day and cleaning done promptly after. My mother mentions whilte growing up my grandmother always making it home in time to cook dinner at her house and attend her local church services (they were southern baptist, there was always church service to attend). When my grandmother had to retire due to health issues my mother took over her duties for several years during my youth and I can attest to the same experience. Nothing about their employment by the church seemed exploitative and both seemed to enjoy feeling like they were helping even if they didn’t share the same sect of Christianity with the preists. To them, this was dignified, “honest” work.

As I mentioned, this is all extremely anecdotal but I think it helps illustrate that not all domestic work is bad and must intrinsically involve an exploitative power imbalance. My paternal grandmother was a servant with all the baggage that comes along with it, my maternal mothers were employees with all the “dignity” that that label may afford.

The Belgian data point is very interesting. My initial thought was that being able to pay less than what domestic service is worth would cause people to treat their employees worse or more expendable since the true value wasn’t being realized by those paying for it. However, thinking about it more, I can understand why this would actually be in the direct benefit of the domestic workers. With the government essentially lowering the cost of entry for prospective employers through subsidies, workers have more power to choose who they want to work for which puts more onus on the employers to behave ethically or risk losing that help. Compare that my paternal grandmother’s situation where there were only so many families in her town that could pay for help (and that it would be relatively safe to work for) and a surplus of women to do the job. That situation created a natural power dynamic that led to her employer demanding more than they knew was appropriate, knowing that if she didn’t do it someone else would be more than willing to; and my grandmother working more than she knew was warranted from fear of losing the precious employment she had while also being possibly blacklisted from working for any other family.


Matt 01.30.23 at 10:54 pm

If someone is ironing my shirts for me, why is it inegalitarian if they do it at my house, but egalitarian if they do it at the dry cleaners? Does the exact same work transform in nature based on location? Or is the key distinction who the employer is? So if I hire a maid, that’s awful, but if I hire a cleaning company who send a maid (and take a cut of their wage), I’m in the clear?

Somewhere (I spent twenty or so minutes looking last night, but couldn’t find it) Michael Walzer discusses this, and makes an argument against having what can be seen as “servants”, on the ground that it harms solidarity and is therefore itself more cofrosive to equality than, say, sending one’s laundry to a cleaner (or doing it one’s self.) As with many arguments by Walzer, it was more about a feeling than rigorous argument. I having the feeling a bit, but am far from certain that it’s justified. (As a teenager or younger, I did a fair amount of the male version of “domestic” work for other people – mowing lawns and the like. As with many such services, this seems to have been largely “professionalized” now – with companies that run the business side, and people – probably mis-labled as “independent contractors”, an important but probably distinct problem – farmed out by them. There have been times when I had a small yard, and would have gladly paid a teenager $20 to do the half hour or hour’s worth of work mowing the lawn, but I’m not sure if teens do this anymore. But, while I hated doing the work, I can’t say I felt degraded by doing it. I’m not sure how the adult (almost always) men who work for, say “Jim’s mowing” in Australia feel.)


SamChevre 01.31.23 at 1:55 am

It is interesting to me to wonder “what if all the world were like the one I know best?” In that world, maids are entirely normal, but there’s no class aspect to being a maid. (I grew up Amish-Mennonite.)

In that world, the typical maid is a teenager, helping a mother with small children. It’s not a career: it’s a life stage. It’s normal to serve as a maid for the (then-teenager, now-mother) who was your mother’s maid when you were a pre-schooler.


Chip Daniels 01.31.23 at 2:24 am

In college, I dated an immigrant girl who worked as a maid for an upper middle class family in a posh Los Angeles suburb.

One of the ways Americans resolve their republican/ servant dilemma was how they kept telling her she was “like family”, to which she privately remarked to me, “Exactly which member of the family? I scrub the toilets like a mom, but am expected to obey like a child.”


Gareth Wilson 01.31.23 at 5:05 am

I’m not sure if it was Nickel and Dimed or a separate article, but Ehrenreich interviewed a professional cleaner who made a detailed critique of the cleaning service she was investigating. The service was prioritising cost-cutting and superficial appearance over actual hygiene. He’d allow more time for sanitisers to actually kill germs before wiping them off, and so on. The article didn’t mention if Ehrenreich had told him that it’s morally wrong to have someone else clean your house for you. I always wondered what his reaction would have been.


Alan White 01.31.23 at 6:48 am

In high school I did domestic cleaning for an affluent couple (in the late 60s-early 70s). I got the distinct impression I was the matron’s “boy” and that my work had to be of the best, cleanest kind, or else scolded for not being perfect. I also detected more than a trace of sexual dominance and condescension, and from both the woman and man. I thought then that getting the money justified it; I no longer think so. Servitude is a power differential, especially when people are employed in a domestic setting. It is a hold-over of slavery ensconced in economic class differences.


notGoodenough 01.31.23 at 8:30 am

[Can] ”outsourcing some of your social reproduction labour to a professional, be egalitarian?”

I think my instinctive response is “probably yes, but also probably not within the current system under which I live (but this is a general point relating to most work).”

With apologies for not taking the time to organise or write down my thoughts properly, I think the rough gist of my point would be as follows:

As others have noted, one can make an argument for the value of having professionals undertake social reproduction labour (in the same sense in which one can argue for people to empty bins or make clothes due to, for example, efficiencies of scale or specialisation of skill). Yet it is important to note that much of such work is undertaken by people who are exploited and have even less opportunity to realise the fruits of their labours (and be regarded with respect for their role in society) than many others, and struggles extend to many areas (from community organisation to the workplace itself – i.e. everything from unionisation of cleaners and carers, to more egalitarian and extended parental leave). Of course, it would be remiss not to note that currently much social reproduction labour is still undertaken by people (particularly women) without recompense or recognition anyway, arguably in part due to the strong association with the family unit.

Insecurity, forced flexibility, isolated and dispersed workplaces, and low wages have long been the hallmark of work under an entrenched capitalist system with increasingly little-to-no protection for workers, and feminised labour has been (particularly?) vulnerable to this. Consequently, I would suggest that any discussion about life beyond paid work is also a discussion of workers’ rights (and, to a large extent, vice versa), and that society would struggle to make either truly egalitarian also addressing the other. I should note that I am not arguing for the marketisation and commodification of unpaid care work, but rather for the indispensable role of care work for society to be recognised and appropriately valued (along with all other forms of work).

Surely it is necessary to view, whether paid or not, social reproduction labour as…well…labour? In which case, by cementing it within the framework of “recognised work”, while also improving conditions of all workers, perhaps some steps can be made towards egalitarianism. If we view maids (and binmen, and surgeons, and academics, and…etc., etc.) as skilled people each fulfilling an important role in society, and also have a society which values work and workers, then social reproduction labour should (and could) become appropriately valued and compensated regardless of who is performing it – which, I would suggest, is a valuable target to aim for.


Tim Worstall 01.31.23 at 10:43 am

“In that world, the typical maid is a teenager, helping a mother with small children. It’s not a career: it’s a life stage. It’s normal to serve as a maid for the (then-teenager, now-mother) who was your mother’s maid when you were a pre-schooler.”

The British – perhaps this is more English – experience of being “in service” was very much like this historically. Not for everyone, but often and largely it was a life stage, somewhere around and about between “not being a child any more” and marriage. Not all that far away from apprenticeship into a guild.

Yes, obviously the children of the rich didn’t go into service, but it was entirely common to have been in service and then later to have servants. One grandmother was a Nanny (from a, I guess, petit bourgeois background, shopkeeper, owner of petrol station and cinema in small town in NI) in the 1920s – quite late in the evolution of the practice – and a decade later was employing a Nanny herself. Less of a leap in social status than many would assume it was these days.


engels 01.31.23 at 11:40 am

A lot of this thread reminds me of the “sex work” debate: people drawing comparisons between domestic service and “ordinary” proletarian labour in order to show the former is legitimate, where the same comparisons might be thought to as show the latter is illegitimate.

One contemporary aspect of all this is how it’s been massified, so any average Londoner can press a button and send an impoverished migrant worker cycling off to McDonald’s to fetch them a Big Mac (an FT article aptly referred to this as the “servant economy”). This probably support the “where do you draw the line” defences of neo-Victorian domestic servitude.


Mike Huben 01.31.23 at 5:05 pm

John Q @ 5:
Home repair and improvement is a return home of outsourced work for men. (And of course, like doing the laundry, it’s not entirely sexually stereotyped.)


Ebenezer Scrooge 01.31.23 at 7:36 pm

As Paul was suggesting, it’s not so much the labor, but the social context: particularly age, persistence, and income inequality. (The gender is almost always fixed.*) Nannies are not au pairs. Maids are not cleaning services. There is always a power differential, but not all power differentials are created equal. And individuals’ personalities often make a difference.

Some young men do the au pair thing.


Tm 01.31.23 at 9:20 pm

Worstall: „Yes, obviously the children of the rich didn’t go into service, but it was entirely common to have been in service and then later to have servants.“

I‘m reminded that the children of the medieval nobility were sent at an early age to serve as pages or court ladies at the court of other noblemen, as part of their noble education. At least that‘s what I was taught.


William S. Berry 02.01.23 at 3:45 am

What Alan White said.

Get real, people. If you think you might have a need for something, you can always find a way to rationalize it.

Step back, take a deep breath, try to assume something like an outside perspective.

A professional service that works while you’re away is the only thing I can see as barely tolerable. You can’t be a “boss” of domestic servants. Then you’re the master and you’re one of them, not one of us (for certain values of them and us, obviously).


Doug K 02.01.23 at 4:50 am

South Africa in the apartheid era had the Masters and Servants Act from 1856 to enforce a sort of slavery for domestic servants. Oddly enough after reform in the 90s, domestic workers got left out. They had to unionize to get progress.. see
“even today in free and democratic South Africa, with its liberal and world renowned Constitution, domestic workers have found it difficult to propagate their cause. This was due to the fact that even, for example, those who entered big business as well as the new government became employers of domestic workers and it was easy for them to forget and silence these workers who kept their families together while these new leaders of business and government ran the country and/or economy.”

As The Who observed,
“I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around me
meet the new boss
same as the old boss”

As Tra James illustrates, domestic work is not different from other work. In decent conditions at a decent wage, it’s a good job. Under prevailing conditions it’s ripe for exploitation of the worker, but this is not in kind different from any wage labor.


Trader Joe 02.01.23 at 12:37 pm

Some of you act like you’ve never bought a service in your life.

Do you do your own dentistry, fix your own car and cut your own hair too? Services involve a contract of labor – absolutely. They don’t involve slavery and abuse unless the contracting party makes it so. Its not an inherent feature of any labor contract.

Have a care for the amazon driver – bring me my consumer goods slave. Leave them at the door so I need not look on your lowly visage.

Do you haul away your own rubbish? Have you ever actually spoken to the person who does?

Spare me the pearl clutching. We ALL contract labor to take away jobs we prefer not to do or cannot do well. That doesn’t make us ‘masters’ as some have said.


engels 02.01.23 at 1:01 pm

I would like to see some statistics in support of Worstall’s view that being a housemaid in Victorian Britain was “often and largely” an “apprenticeship” for marriage and having servants yourself.


MisterMr 02.01.23 at 2:14 pm

IMHO there are two different problems:

On the one hand when we speak of specialisation, the specialisation comes from the other side: for example suppose that one is a very specialised worker like a doctor, a highly paid programmer, a finance guy etc., with an “upper middle class” income. Then this guy/gal makes 10/hour and may pay 5/hour someone else to do housework etc.. The specialisation is that of the employer, who has an high wage and therefore can pay a lower wage to a less specialised house worker. If the house worker had the same income than the employer, when we include the taxes the employer would most likely not employ the worker (though this is not automatic).
This is different from, say, sending the kids to kindergarten where there is an actual economy of scale.

The second, not directly related aspect, is that like in the “sex worker” example by engels @17 the kind of fork performed might imply a microsocial position where the worker is somewhat inside an intimate relationship, but on the other hand outside said relationship, with the family of the employer, which is what creates this alienating/servitude aspect; though here it depends also on the specific persons I suppose.

By the way both my mother and my father worked (both with a good income), and my father died quite young, so I and my younger brother and sister were raised by a nanny (we largely stayed at her house) and her husband, and just her when her husband died. We are still in good relations with her family (her daughter and nephews) and often see each other for festivities, so it is true that this kind of relationship tend to become a sort of family relationship, and when “family” and “money” come together a lot of nasty things can happen, and this kind of relationship might become abusive or diminishing.


engels 02.01.23 at 5:18 pm

In decent conditions at a decent wage, it’s a good job.

As long as we’re still talking about full-time domestic servants of able-bodied adults, it is a fundamentally valueless and demeaning use of a human being’s only life, regardless of compensation (ofc this is true of many “good jobs”, including some that enable the possessor to have servants themselves).


Alex SL 02.02.23 at 8:57 am

Reading some of the comments to the effect of “all labour is exploitation” or “what is the difference to other service jobs?” here, I think they are missing points already made. To reiterate with more clarity:

Being a maid or a butler is not like delivering a pizza or painting a room for money. It is a more vulnerable position because of being embedded in somebody else’s private life in a way that a normal service job isn’t. There is also generally a greater expectation of performative subservience that goes considerably beyond the worst “the customer is always” right policy, again partly because at least in the latter case you know that that psycho will be gone soon, and then you have the next, usually nicer customer in front of you, whereas that family you are serving is your entire world. Ignoring that aspect of human vulnerability and psychology is somewhat problematic.

Furthermore, you need to presume a family that earns so much that, for them, paying at least one person (the nanny or butler) a living wage is a relatively minor expense. Say, the family has four members, they presumably would have an income at least five times what they pay the maid, likely considerably more yet, otherwise they would not consider that a good investment and instead do their own cleaning and cooking. And we are presumably not talking about whether the top fifty richest families in a nation have a maid each, but whether it is a widespread practice. If the latter, then there have to be classes of people with extremely different levels of income and access to alternative jobs, as in Apartheid South Africa.

Point is, other service jobs do not presume or require that. In a hypothetical, radically egalitarian nation where everybody earns exactly the same income, you can have a cleaning service or food delivery, because each service has many customers, and each customer spends only a tiny fraction of their income on these services. That’s just specialisation. But you logically cannot have a family that is able to afford maid in such a nation. That’s not an opinion, that just math. This is the extreme end of the spectrum, yes; but the widespread existence of maids and butlers is only possible waaay towards the other extreme end, presupposing a frankly repulsive level of inequality.


Chris Bertram 02.02.23 at 12:00 pm

Amélie Le Renard’s Western Privilege (about the sociology of mainly French”expats” in Dubai) is interesting on all this. It occupies the whole of ch.5. One persistent concern of parents is that if their children experience domestic service as normal, they will be ruined for living in France, where such support is unaffordable and they will have to do things for themselves. I remember an episode teaching justice and domestic labour once and a young woman (who I think now was probably just such an “expat”) saying to the consternation of most of the students (but the amusement of the working-class one whose mother was a cleaner): “I don’t know how to think about this. In our house, outside people come in and do everything.”


engels 02.02.23 at 12:29 pm

if their children experience domestic service as normal, they will be ruined for living in France, where such support is unaffordable and they will have to do things for themselves

I fear this fate may have befallen the ex-flat-mates mentioned above, although in their case it was due to boarding school and/or patriarchy (and since they swiftly graduated to highly paid heteronormativity I doubt it really held them back).


Matt 02.02.23 at 12:36 pm

Picking up on Chris’s point a bit: when I taught at Wharton I once had a (generally very good and nice) student from India say (in response to some point of discussion in class that I now don’t remember for sure), “In India, everyone has servants”. I asked her if the servants had servants, and her face just went pale – it was clear that she’d never thought about it before. Everyone she “knew” had servants, after all. (It might well have been that ther servants in her house were well enough paid that they had servants of their own, on a smaller scale. I’m not at all sure about that. But I’d be surprised if it went any more steps down than that.)


Alex SL 02.02.23 at 9:31 pm

Matt @30,

Yes, that’s like that politician I mentioned earlier: it is important that people can afford to have servants. Real people like you and me, that is. The servants themselves don’t count as people.

Others have remarked on the strategy of saying “you are like family” to rationalise how one isn’t a bad guy for having a servant. Dehumanising them (without even noticing that one is doing that!) is a different approach but for the same purpose.

At a more general level, when I was younger and slightly less cynical I sometimes wondered how people tolerated feudalism and serfdom for as long as they did. Social media of recent years – from the cult-like veneration of the rich by the people they exploit to the reflexive defense of exploitative arrangements as ethical simply because they are common practice – have demonstrated abundantly that the greater question is how they were ever overcome.


J, not that one 02.02.23 at 11:21 pm

I think the discussion is unfortunately distorted by the question–which is different from the question whether people should be paid to do domestic work–whether all the unpaid domestic work should fall on only some members of a household. There’s probably a line somewhere between “teenager doesn’t pick up dirty clothes from the floor” and “woman who’s performing nursing duties for a seriously ill family member hires another woman to do the harder bits of housework for her so she can sleep sometimes.” It’s not very clear where that line is.

Whether cleaning for another person is more inherently degrading than, say, making and receiving phone calls for person with deficient social skills or morality, I don’t really know. I’m sure many people would prefer the cleaning job.


Alan Morgan 02.03.23 at 4:28 am

I think the “apprenticeship for marriage” view of Victorian domestic service is entirely too rosy. As I understand it, young female domestic workers were almost universally banned from having male “followers”, and if they did escape these strictures and found a marriage partner their employment invariably ceased. It doesn’t appear to have been viewed as such by people who employed domestic servants.

I actually listened yesterday to an episode of “The Rest is History” podcast about this very subject, called “The Real Downton Abbey” with the historian Lucy Lethbridge.


Tim Worstall 02.03.23 at 7:26 am

“I would like to see some statistics in support of Worstall’s view that being a housemaid in Victorian Britain was “often and largely” an “apprenticeship” for marriage and having servants yourself.”

We can build at least part of the structure from other observable facts. The standard line is that “one third of women between 15 and 20 were in service” (1891 census for example). We also know that servants, while servants, did not marry. The English marriage age was early to mid 20s for women. And a population booming, as England’s did in the 19th cent, did not leave one third of the women unmarried. Ergo, some decent portion of the women who were in service as teenagers did marry.

From Mr Google “It was common for girls to work in their teens and early twenties, then leave to get married, usually to someone in their social class. It was relatively less common for women to spend their whole working lives in service, although a fair number did.”

” I asked her if the servants had servants, and her face just went pale” Well, yes. Except, well. Another tale from the familial past. Post-WWII, just post-Raj, the British armed forces sent recently retired officers out to build the training institutions for the newly independent nations. One ancestor ended up building – institutionally that is, not physically – the Pakistani Air Force Engineering College. Ended up with a household of 33 servants (this was a function of the job, not the family). For a household of two people seems excessive. Except, as it was explained back in servantless England. Once you’ve got five or ten servants (butler, cook, couple of housemaids, gardener and boy and so on) then you start to need a dhobi wallah for the servants, a servants’ cook, a servants’ cook’s assistant and it all just grows like Topsy.

Yes, I know that’s not what was meant.


Salem 02.03.23 at 10:05 am

If the key aspect is being embedded in someone else’s life with a single boss, then what about an executive assistant? An apprentice? Heck, I wonder how some of you feel about stay-at-home mums.

Or to up the ante, what about a carer for a disabled person? Deeply embedded in that person’s life, likely doing “menial” tasks, with a single boss. And there is indeed the potential for abuse in such situations – in both directions. But I just don’t see how you jump from something having the potential for abuse – which is true of all human relations to some degree – to it being bad overall. There is also the potential for human flourishing. A lot more people find fulfilment in being a nanny in pizza delivery.


Salem 02.03.23 at 10:06 am

That should read “A lot more people find fulfilment in being a nanny than in pizza delivery.”


engels 02.03.23 at 2:24 pm

Upping Trader Joe’s advice against pearl clutching #23, with qualifications: in a market economy we’re all servants and masters to a degree and participate in the obsequiousness and selfishness that comes with those roles—but that’s a reason for abolishing the market, not bringing back servants.


Tm 02.03.23 at 9:18 pm

Worstall: you forgot the part about the women servants, after marrying, having servants themselves. Seems… unlikely.

Regarding how many women never married: I recall having read that lower class people were fairly likely to remain unmarried, since one had to be able to „afford“ a marriage, but a few minutes of googling didn’t turn up any information about the actual rate of remaining single. What I did find is this:

„ Census figures for the period reveal there were far more women than men. There were three main reasons why women outnumbered men. The mortality rate for boys was far higher than for girls; a large number of males served in the armed forces abroad and men were more likely to emigrate than women. By 1861 there were 10,380,285 women living in England and Wales but only 9,825,246 men.“


Tm 02.03.23 at 9:29 pm

For unmarried lower class women, working as a servant was about the only way to survive, apart from factory work.

An interesting source about servants in Germany around 1900:


Beast 02.04.23 at 10:36 am

Domestic work involves actual talent.

Or: “Some people are talented at discussing philosophy and art, some people are talented at cleaning toilets. I just happen to be in the first group. This is a situation I am happy with.”


J, not that one 02.05.23 at 5:56 pm

When inequality is blamed on “the market economy,” it suggests that other types of society, prior to the development of the market economy, had less inequality. That is implausible.

It would be possible to interpret the statement as “today inequality is caused by the market economy, what other types of economy might do aren’t what we should be concerned with.” But I don’t think that’s what most people (educated or otherwise) would read it as, and I don’t think it actually helps.

Similarly, when we say “inequality is bad and should be eliminated,” I hear exactly that. I don’t hear “inequality is bad and probably can’t be eliminated, but we should try to minimize it,” which I think is true but is incompatible with an all-or-nothing attitude, even if purely rhetorical. People just can’t hold both thoughts in their mind at the same time and do practical work to make change.


engels 02.05.23 at 9:18 pm

J, the point isn’t about inequality but the nature of markets: the customer is king!


anynameleft 02.05.23 at 9:37 pm

When I worked in polynesia and micronesia I being single in a climate where I probably would have died from some form of food poisoning if left to my own devices I hired a woman to help.
When I committed to British ex pat of my discomfort in seing someone as a “maid” he introduced me to the trm of “someone who does for me” which seeme much less condesending.
It seemed that I always ended up hiring an older woman married woman where I was the only “cash” income for the family.
Remembering that at the time I was accused by other, outraged. expats for paying to much since I added ferry fare to her pay ($3 week) Plus on my departure they inheritted all of my household things ( linens, pots and pans etc)
I do have to admit that they spoiled me and one got so protective she would shoo away any of the local women she decided were not “good” enough for me.
Could have done with out that.


engels 02.05.23 at 10:08 pm

And ofc rejecting capitalism doesn’t mean you want to go back to feudalism!


spirilis 02.06.23 at 3:02 am

Maybe it’s different but I’m the custodian at a church. I find the work quite rewarding. I’m a college graduate and a journeyman cabinetmaker among other things and I don’t understand why any individual doing useful work is diminished and denigrated.


AnthonyB 02.06.23 at 4:24 am

Of course all of have contracted for medical/dental/accounting services and the like. But in those cases, I’m a customer. I don’t haggle over price any more than I would in a shop. Since I accept the asking price, I’m certainly not negotiating from a position of power since I’m not negotiating at all. (I don’t think I would ever be comfortable acting as an employer.)


TM 02.06.23 at 8:54 am

engels 42: “the nature of markets: the customer is king”

I doubt very much that that is “the nature of markets”. I also doubt it is the nature of capitalism. And I doubt that capitalism equals “markets”. IIRC, some guy in the 19th century had some ideas about that.


Ray Vinmad 02.06.23 at 11:51 am

Beast: No, it is simply a fact. Some people are good at housekeeping and some people are bad at it– which is why people are praised for their abilities in that domain even if they do it for themselves.

It doesn’t mean anything about what else a person with this skill is good at.

I didn’t mention that I cleaned houses, which is another reason I know that it involves skills I don’t have. I wasn’t paid much. People only hired me, I think, if they could not afford someone better. I wouldn’t have been able to make a living at it.


engels 02.06.23 at 10:19 pm

When Hazel Settas took a job as housekeeper to a wealthy Tory MP, she evidently wasn’t ready for what she found. Her instructions for running the former minister Jonathan Djanogly’s £7m home read more like the backstage rider of a particularly demanding pop diva than something out of Mrs Beeton. Rules on the management of avocados alone ran to 100 words, with a strict system of rotation between bowl and fridge to maintain ripeness (“check to see if there are eight soft avocados in the fridge … if not add up the missing number of soft avocados and put this number of hard avocados into the fruit bowl”). Phone calls were to be answered within four rings, and there were instructions on carrying items correctly from the coffee table to the sink. Settas, who lasted only a fortnight in the job, said she had to work until 10 or 11 at night to complete her tasks and that the MP’s wife, Rebecca Silk, allegedly shouted at her to “hurry up”; the housekeeper cried, she says, in her room at night. “I was shocked she would behave like that when her husband was an MP,” Settas told the Sunday Mirror, after successfully pursuing Silk through the courts for £886 in wages that she argued she was owed. But, given how some of Djanogly’s colleagues have been behaving lately, perhaps it won’t have come as much of a shock to readers. A second, unnamed housekeeper, who also took legal action after working for the Djanogly-Silk household, was awarded £3,148 in unauthorised wage deductions, overtime and annual leave, with the judge concluding that Silk had “sought to deprive” her of important working rights


rogergathmann 02.07.23 at 10:06 am

I’ve worked as a janitor at a school and – so long ago it was! – at a Sears warehouse. I’ve cleaned a lot of clogged toilets, more than my share of clogged toilets, clogged toilets that could very well follow some anti-hero in a horror film. I actually didn’t mind being the janitor at either of those two places, but that was because I was going to college, and this was a sidejob. When it isn’t a sidejob, it can be brutal and brutalizing. I can’t imagine cleaning clogged toilets for someone I was around in one on one capacity in a domestic space and still having to, uh, respect that person. You stare enough at somebody’s shit, you begin to understand the phrase, you are full of shit. It is truly a sign of civilization when butlers and maids become workers for organizations like Merry maids and don’t have to sleep in maid’s quarters or wait on gentle folks. The latter are, by the way, full of shit.

Comments on this entry are closed.