Reviews

Domestic service exploitation goes global

Dr Pamela Cox’s excellent social history series, Servants: Life Below Stairs, ended this weekend with a brief glimpse into paid domestic service in Britain today.

Once it was widespread for families from the middle classes upwards to have live in staff to keep their homes in order, but today it is just the preserve of the rich.

And of course those that do employ domestic help today treat their workers more humanely and provide better conditions in comparison to the grim realities of Victorian times, bar a few extreme cases.

But this is only the British story.

Around the world today many employed in domestic service face a grim life – long hours, back-breaking work, terrible living conditions and low pay.

In fact, a report by the International Labour Office paints a picture of domestic service in number of countries that resonates with the work accounts of servants in Victorian Britain.

For many today, working hours are long – upto 16 hours a day, seven days a week. The comprehensive report says it’s not rare to find these workers exposed to on-call work day and night. In many cases, working hours are so extended as to deprive domestic workers of any free time at all.

The workers, typically women, are exposed to physical and psychological abuse, such a rape, so it’s not surprising to find accounts of these vulnerable people being pushed to suicide.

They are not paid adequately for the hard work they carry out, while at the same time they are often deprived of proper food – providing only leftovers or rotten food to domestic workers is widespread.

And the exploitation of servants is by no means limited to a few isolated countries – Human Rights Watch has recorded abuse in El Salvador, Guatemala, Kuwait, Indonesia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Togo. But that list is by no means exhaustive.

People around the world employ servants for practical reasons, i.e. preparing food and keeping homes clean, but they also do it to demonstrate their status, an argument in keeping with what Dr Cox noted in her series with respect to the 19th and early 20th centuries in Britain.

Like then, people want to show that they are wealthy enough to be able to afford staff.

In Victorian Britain it is interesting to note that domestic servants were initially restricted to aristocratic families, who sometimes employed hundreds of people on their estates. But as the country got rich on the proceeds of building an empire, the middle classes wanted live in workers to show they had made it. And then later the lower middle classes – the teachers and bank staff – wanted a piece of the action too.

As countries progress today, aspirational middle classes want to show their growing status, one way of which is by having servants.

And the arguments that Dr Cox makes as to why domestic service declined in Britain are very relevant in explaining why vulnerable women are abused and exploited around the world today.

In Britain successive Government’s introduced legislation which improved the protection of workers – the hours they worked and the conditions they should expect in the workplace. As countries around the world grow richer, enhancements to labour laws have in many cases been slow to keep up.

Women in Britain also had over time a wider range of options, beyond private homes to include shops and offices, particularly as the level of education provided to all was increased and improved. This is why global development charities put so much emphasis on the skills training that gives people an access to a wider range of opportunities.

The fact that aspects of Victorian Britain can be seen around the world today is a massive scandal. Developing countries, with the help of outside agencies, must do more to ensure that working conditions and workers’ rights are improved.

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