Socialist Worker

The Servant Problem: a return to Victorian values

by Rosie Cox
Issue No. 1991

More women are employed today as nannies, housekeepers, cleaners and au pairs than in Victorian times

More women are employed today as nannies, housekeepers, cleaners and au pairs than in Victorian times

The last 30 years have seen real gains for women in the workplace. Women are more likely than ever to be in professional jobs, to be working full time and to be well paid.

However, while some women have gained from these advances – there are now more young female millionaires than there are male ones – inequalities between women have grown. This has underpinned a new boom industry in Britain – paid domestic help.

Britain now employs more domestic workers – nannies, housekeepers, cleaners and au pairs – than it did in Victorian times.

At least 2.7 million households employ some form of help, spending over £11 billion a year. Predictions are that the sector could double in value in the next three years as more and more people pay others to do cleaning and caring in their homes.

The reasons for this growth are complicated. They include global scale economic trends that cause inequalities in income and access to decent employment, government policies that push responsibility for care onto individual families and sexist assumptions about women’s roles.

Women are still overwhelmingly responsible for doing housework and childcare. Women who work full time, on average do nine hours a week more housework than their partners.

They do more housework if they work longer hours than their partners, and they do more housework than their partners even if they work and their partners are unemployed.

Overall, the average woman spends about three times as long doing childcare and about four times as long doing housework as the average man each day.

One outcome of this unequal workload is that people are increasingly looking to pay others to do their domestic chores if they can afford to. Households that share the housework and childcare equally are much less likely to employ help than those who don’t.

Some couples find that they spend so much time arguing about who should do housework that they decide to pay someone else to do it instead.

In fact one researcher found that marriage counsellors advise couples to employ domestic help rather than squabble about housework.

The owner of a cleaning franchise company said that he gets customers by calling them on a Saturday morning because it’s “the prime time for arguing over the fact the house is a mess”.

For those who can afford it paying for help might seem like a simple solution. The arguments stop and the house gets cleaned. But in reality no progress has been made.

Men have not taken responsibility for their share of the mess and the work just gets passed to a poorer woman.

Women’s responsibility for housework also means that they are the workforce of this new boom industry. Employers assume that all women know how to do housework so they find it easy to get jobs.

Friends and family members can find cleaning jobs for other women they know.

For women who are looking after their kids, particularly if they are claiming benefits, part time cleaning work can be one of the only jobs available that fits around childcare and can be done cash in hand.

Domestic responsibilities trap these women in low paid and low status work.

Government policies have worked to push responsibilities for childcare and elderly care onto individual women, rather than providing services publicly.

Together with long working hours and high incomes for some women, this has created a demand for full-time live-in carers and housekeepers. Au pairs are paid as little as £40 per week and many families find them the cheapest source of childcare available.

Globalisation and the spread of neo-liberalism have pushed women from poor countries into these jobs.

Thousands of women from the Global South and eastern Europe now work as housekeepers, nannies and au pairs in Britain.

Often these women will be leaving their own children with relatives to move abroad to care for other people’s families.

They do this in the hope of earning enough money to pay for their children’s education and to help their families escape poverty. But they often find they face isolation, low pay, long hours and worse.

The campaigning group Kalayaan, which supports migrant domestic workers, found that among workers contacting them 87 percent reported psychological abuse, 40 percent physical abuse, 38 percent had no regular food, 90 percent were denied time off and the average working day was 17.7 hours long.

Women’s success in the workplace is to be applauded. But without similar victories at home and in the provision of services, it has worked to make the differences between women greater than ever.

Real liberation involves men and women sharing domestic responsibilities equally and governments investing in childcare and elderly care as a right for all.

Employing domestic help is a private solution to a public problem. It divides women and makes real equality ever harder to reach.

Rosie Cox’s book, The Servant Problem: Domestic Employment in a Global Economy is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, for £15.99. Go to or call 020 7637 1848

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Sat 11 Mar 2006, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1991
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