'Hired hubbies and mobile mums'.

Author:Cox, Rosie
 
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Studies of paid domestic work from around the world show that in almost all circumstances it is poorly paid, unappreciated and considered to be easy and unskilled. This is most true for 'housework' type work--cleaning, cooking, shopping and organising the household--but is also partially true for caring work, such as looking after children, the elderly or infirm.

Various reasons have been suggested by researchers for why paid domestic work is so poorly rewarded and regarded. Many of these reflect the circular relationship between the low status of the work, its association with women's traditional roles, and the low status of the people who take on this work in paid forms, many of whom are multiply disadvantaged in hierarchies of race/ethnicity, citizenship and gender. In other words, the low status of the work, the workers and women as a group, act to reinforce each other.

In thinking about this complex relationship I have written elsewhere (Campkin and Cox, 2008; Cox, 2008; see also Barbosa, 2008) about the link between the status of paid domestic work--and workers--and its association with dirt; an association which lowers the standing of both work and workers and which is not simple but inflected by class, race and gender. Here I want to explore in more detail the part that gender plays in producing the status of domestic work and the notion of domestic workers as unskilled. I do this by looking at the case of men who are employed to carry out commoditised forms of male labour in the home in the same way that female domestic workers carry out commoditised forms of typically female domestic duties. This is a sort of experiment in trying to hold constant elements other than gender to see the effect that has on notions of skill and status. This is of course partial, but is still enlightening.

The article draws on interviews with 'hubbies' who own franchises in the Aotearoa/New Zealand handyman firm 'Hire a Hubby', and householders who have paid for handyman help. I compare these two groups' ideas about the value of the 'hubbies' work to existing research on the valuing of 'female' domestic work (that is work done by paid workers which replaces traditional 'female' labour in the home).

The article begins by outlining how the labour of female domestic workers involved in cleaning/housekeeping is considered and then goes on to reflect on data from Aotearoa/New Zealand and this commoditised form of male domestic labour. I show that tasks traditionally done by women--and carried out by domestic workers--are constructed by employers as unskilled, boring, time consuming and repetitive; whereas tasks which are traditionally done by male family members and done for pay by 'handymen' are constructed as skilled, difficult, challenging and deserving of reasonable pay even when they require no formal qualifications or training.

This comparison is important for discussions of domestic workers' pay and conditions, as well as women's status more generally. It demonstrates the tenacity of the relationship between gender and the (in)visibility of labour that women perform. Yet, it also shows that not all workers who replace the unpaid labour of family members in their own homes are poorly paid or lacking in respect.

The logics of paying for housework

Research from a number of countries shows that cleaning / housekeeping work in private houses is demeaned and poorly rewarded.

The workers who perform this work are generally considered to be unskilled and the work is commonly carried out by people who are highly disadvantaged within labour markets--normally due to immigration status and racial discrimination (see, for example, England and Stiell, 1997; Pratt, 1997 on Canada; Hondagneu-Sotelo, 2001 on California; Anderson, 2000 on Europe; and Ehrenreich and Hochschild, 2003).

The work of housework is too often invisible--simply not noticed, not appreciated or considered to be an act of kindness or favour rather than work. Housework is also considered (by both employers and employees) to be boring, easy and unskilled; the assumption is that all women know how to do housework. A lack of aptitude may be cast as laziness, or personal slovenliness, but ability will rarely be praised. In addition the pay of cleaners and housekeepers is considered by many employers in light of the fact that the alternative to employing someone would be carrying out the work themselves for free. This has the tendency to lower the value of domestic work, both in terms of pay rates (normally manifest in total number of hours paid for) and in terms of status.

My research in London (see Cox, 2006) found that there is an intertwining logic used when deciding to employ a cleaner that is to do with nature of the work, its status and the cost of paying others to do it. These elements could be thought of as the: 'boring', 'more important things' and 'never a bargain' rhetorics. The 'boring' rhetoric is about the nature of cleaning work--it is routine and repetitive--and also about the fact that it is never done, never appreciated and largely invisible to others.

Whilst many of us may feel this way about housework, these attitudes should still be understood as socially produced and related to the low status of cleaning work, rather than inherent in the activities it involves. Gardening, for example, is equally hard, if not harder, physically, equally never-ending and not necessarily appreciated, but it does not have the same status and therefore is not conceptualised in the same way.

Closely related to this, the 'more important things to do' rhetoric involves discourses about the preciousness of time--particularly time to be spent...

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