Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Understanding the interpersonal and the structural context of domestic work

Domestic employer-worker relationships can be difficult, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Español

Bridget Anderson
29 January 2018


Can employers be allies in the fight for domestic workers' rights?

We asked experts in the field of domestic workers' rights to respond to the following: 'Can employers be allies in the fight for domestic workers' rights?' This is what they answered.

Introduction: Beyond ‘maids and madams’: can employers be allies in new policies for domestic workers’ rights?


My interest in domestic work started when I left college and became what I would now call a live-in domestic worker for a wealthy family in West London. At the time I was ‘the girl upstairs’. In exchange for the upstairs self-contained flat, I cleaned and did the laundry for four hours every weekday and made tea when the youngest child got home. I polished the silver and ironed the sheets. I cleaned up the post-party vomit of people who went on to become ministers in the Labour Government.

The woman employer explained that the reason she exchanged the flat for these services rather than offering a salary was because she thought the latter would amount to exploitation, and she did not want to exploit anybody. When I started I thought that was fair enough, but our relationship eventually deteriorated. She and her husband were in the middle of a divorce and she would sometimes pour her heart out to me, only to reprimand me the next day for not folding the clothes correctly. I alternated between serving as her confidante and working as her servant depending on her mood.

I alternated between serving as her confidante and working as her servant depending on her mood.

Around the same time, I began working with undocumented domestic workers. I would not presume to compare my situation to theirs: they were women who could be escaping life and death situations, beaten for putting a jumper in the washing machine or eating a piece of bread, forbidden to contact loved ones, not paid a salary, given no space to sleep and so on.

Female employers, who often shouted and enforced what seemed to be deliberately humiliating tasks, perpetuated most of the non-sexual physical violence. “The husband, he is very nice, but the woman, she is a lion”, one woman once put it to me. Representations of husbands as the good guys reproaching their wives for abusing their workers left me feeling uneasy, as did the criticisms of some female employers by domestic workers: “If I was as rich as her I would be a housewife and not leave my child in the care of a stranger”.

“How is it that patriarchy is let off the hook?” I wondered even as I too far preferred the husband of the family I worked for than I did the wife. Nevertheless, I was very clear that employers could never be allies.

But now I see the question as being more complicated. Firstly, because it is not always easy to distinguish who the employer is. In many heteronormative households, the woman may manage the domestic worker, but the man will sign the contract. When it comes to care work, the care user is sometimes the employer and sometimes a relative, and each may have very different relations and interactions with the worker. Sometimes the formal employer of the domestic worker is an agency that may also mediate between the worker and the service user. Furthermore, workers and employers are not exclusive or binary categories: many migrant domestic workers themselves employ domestic workers in their countries of origin. Who employs, why, at what life stage, and with what status implications all vary culturally and historically, as does the power relation between worker and employer.

Workers and employers are not exclusive or binary categories.

Secondly it is important to recognise that even in wealthy countries, not all employers are middle class. When I was researching the 2004 expansion of the EU, we conducted a number of interviews with au pairs. I remember one woman who had been an au pair for a family for over six years. Her employer was a single mother who had two children and worked in a hospital in poorly paid shift work. She had no family nearby and her life would have been unsustainable if she did not have access to below minimum wage live-in support. The au pair said she hadn’t left because she felt too worried about how her employer’s family would manage if she did.

The problem of exploitation of domestic labour is not only the result of morally reprehensible employers. It is about the reliance of patriarchal capitalism on free or low cost reproductive labour, the erosion of welfare safety nets, and the gendering of austerity policies. In this example, the au pair and her employer could have been allies over improved wages and conditions for health service workers, and better state childcare provision as necessary requirements to ensure that workers in private households are not exploited. The trick is to start with the rights of workers in private households, rather than to say that their rights will be granted as soon as everything else is sorted out.

In the private households it is undeniable that there are conflicts of interests between female employers and domestic workers. These are not limited to questions of pay, hours and conditions, but can be infused with emotions as well. The employer may feel insecure about their children’s affection for their nanny or anxiety about the ageing parent’s estate, guilt at not being at home, frustration that the house is not cleaned in the way that it would be if she had done it herself, and concerns about their husband’s attentions. The worker too may feel jealous about personal relationships, resentment for being separated from her loved ones at the same time as caring for others, or anger at the global inequality that means that she is servicing a lifestyle that may be unattainable for her. And there can be positive emotions on both sides too and an understanding that grows from living alongside each other – which, it should be noted, is not necessarily reflected in pay and conditions.

Employers often rely on the notion of ‘employment as favour’.

I have spoken to employers in the context of various research projects, and most of them did not want to think of themselves as exploiters taking advantage of a more vulnerable woman. To reconcile this, they often rely on the notion of ‘employment as favour’: the worker needs a job and so the employer is benefitting the worker by extending employment. The employer will then interpret their employee’s ability to pay for medication, see their children through school, or sideline an alcoholic husband as a result of the wages they have earned as a domestic worker. They thereby convey not only that they have not shied away from inequality, but also that they are privy to the worker’s private life and trusted as more than just an employer.

What kind of allyship is sought from employers – as opposed to other stakeholders – in advancing the rights of domestic workers? All over the world, one of the rights that employers tend to be most reluctant to acknowledge is the workers’ right to join a trade union. Employers can give workers the flexibility to attend meetings and political events; support for legalization and regularization; preparedness to sign sponsorship documents, to pay tax and National Insurance; and a capacity for reflexivity and discussion. I have met domestic workers who say that they do have these kinds of employers. Educating and encouraging employers to contribute in these ways and to understand the connections between household arrangements and structural inequalities is one small step towards eliminating the national, economic and gendered inequalities that shape both demand and supply of commodified domestic labour.

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