Socialist Worker

Masters and Servants: Rich are still the masters

A new book and TV series show that domestic servitude is rising and the wealthy have not changed their attitude

Issue No. 1865

In the new 'reality' TV series Masters and Servants, two families take turns at being the masters and then the servants. In the first programme the posh Cheryl Allen Stevens and her husband showed themselves to be arrogant, disdainful and willing to humiliate those they thought beneath them.

They were in their element ordering around the working class Nutley family-enforcing petty rules, making them work from dawn to one in the morning and treating them with barely concealed contempt. Snooty Cheryl even accused the Nutleys of being smelly. She couldn't take it when the roles were reversed. She refused to clean properly and walked out after just three days.

Working class Mandy was reduced to fuming, 'The rich get everything, while the poor get trodden on.' It was cheap and nasty TV, but it showed that the class divide was alive and well. It's called 'reality' TV, but it seems that the whole premise of the series is that the world of masters and servants is precisely 'unreal'.

But domestic service is certainly not just a thing of the past. One of the 'triumphs' of Thatcherism, and a trend that continues under New Labour, was the return of domestic servants.

Spending on domestic service doubled between 1990 and 2000. More than two million people in Britain work in domestic service. That's not including those employed casually as part time cleaners, gardeners and so on. In increasing numbers the rich are employing working class women and men to do their dirty work, care for their children and service their every whim. This trend is described in the new book Global Woman, edited by Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild.

It describes the increasing trend for the US wealthy to employ poor migrant women from developing countries as servants. There are some heart-rending stories in the book of the lives of women forced to leave their own children to care for the children of the rich.

Domestic worker Rosemarie Samaniego says, 'When the girl that I take care of calls her mother 'mama' my heart jumps all the time because my children also call me 'mama'. I feel the gap caused by our physical separation especially in the morning when I pack lunch, because that's what I used to do for them. Some days I just start crying while I am sweeping the floor because I am thinking of my children. If I had wings, I would fly home to my children. Just for a moment to see my children.'

Many domestic workers in the US are now hired by big firms such as Merry Maids and Maids International. Barbara Ehrenreich describes her experience working for such a corporate cleaning firm. Workers did eight backbreaking hours – cleaning, vacuuming, scrubbing the floor – with only a ten-minute break. '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 Windex over a french door.'

In one chapter Bridget Anderson describes just how the well-heeled employers treat the women who slave for them: 'Their work can be singularly degrading: cleaning cats' anuses, flushing employers' toilets, scrubbing the floor with a toothbrush three times a day, or standing by the door in the same position for hours at a time.'

Global Woman mainly looks at the experience of the US. The experience for migrant domestic workers in Britain is just as bad. A survey by British support group Kalayaan found that 54 percent of domestic workers were locked in, 55 percent did not have their own beds and 38 percent were not fed regularly.

The majority of those who serve the needs of rich families in Britain are not from Third World countries, but are working class women from Britain. As the first episode of Masters and Servants showed, the wealthy in Britain have contempt for all working class people and those they think are 'beneath' them.

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Sat 23 Aug 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1865
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