New Internationalist

The Servant Problem

August 2006

by Rosie Cox

Rosie Cox has a sharp eye for the paradoxes of domestic labour. Still regarded as ‘women’s work’ it is consequently given less importance than other forms of labour. There are more servants now than there were in Victorian England; and although not in rigid hierarchies of 19th-century servitude, there is still plenty of scope for exploitation of nannies, domestic helps and au pairs, particularly when these are women who have migrated to the West in search of livelihood. Rosie Cox looks at ways in which living and working conditions of domestic workers can be improved, but she is well aware that it is the spaces between terrible global inequalities that permit exploitation to flourish. The reappearance of a leisured class that is willing to take poor women away from their families in the Philippines or Sri Lanka to maintain the flawless home and glossy lifestyle of the Western dream. The distortions this creates in Western countries are magnified in the South, where the middle classes regard their domestic employees as a different order of humanity. In Dhaka, I met countless women who employ girls of 10 or 11 to work a 15-hour day, saying sweetly ‘Oh, she is like my daughter.’ I never met one girl who saw the faintest resemblance between her employer and her mother.

This is a good and timely read: it shows how a world which many thought had vanished into history is still flourishing under our very noses.

This column was published in the August 2006 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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