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The hidden industry of ‘hired help’


By Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo
University of California Press, 309 pages, $19.95


Americans are quirky about class. We point to democracy and egalitarianism as the defining elements of our society, yet we cannot ignore our checkered history of exploitation of land and labor.

Fast forward to the 21st century. The majority of women with children are working, and two-career families struggle to stay ahead of the frenetic pace. They try to balance the demands of the workplace with the needs of the family and the tasks associated with “taking care of our stuff.” Many working women -- on the advice of friends, therapists, or just because it makes sense to pay others to do work there’s no time to do -- turn to housekeepers and nannies to minimize the chaos and make time for activities besides working at work and working at home.

Yet there is a profound moral ambivalence about having “hired help” in our homes, paying others to clean our homes and care for our children. It sounds so aristocratic and reeks of feudalism. There is discomfort about hiring mostly poor and mainly immigrant women to do the “dirty work” of cleaning and caring. Some may question whether or not this kind of work is a real job, a conundrum not lost on stay-at-home moms who are often on the defensive when the inevitable question is raised at a cocktail party or company picnic: “So what do you do?” Women who do not have a professional career yet depend on a housekeeper and nanny to help out admit they don’t like being around when the worker is cleaning. That’s the day or the time they choose to run errands or go shopping.

It is this discomfort and this invisible, largely unregulated workplace that University of Southern California sociology professor Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo explores in her latest book, Doméstica. Sotelo, author of three other books on race, gender and immigration, interviewed or surveyed more than 200 Latina domestic workers and their employers in the Los Angeles area in the mid-to-late 1990s.

Sotelo confesses that she too has bought into the bias that her “real work” is her teaching, research, and writing, not the varied activities surrounding the care of her home and family. The daughter of a Chilean woman whose domestic employment with an American family in Chile was her ticket to the United States, Sotelo is keenly aware of how current immigration trends, cultural expectations and stereotypes, the demand for nannies and housekeepers, and their vulnerability conspire to keep domestic employment and the working conditions they encounter just another dirty little secret in the suburbs of large cities all over the United States.

Even this hidden industry has its career ladder, the reader learns. Most newly arrived Latina immigrant women begin as live-in housekeepers and nannies. They receive room and board. That benefit, though often highly touted by their employers to defend the low wages these women earn, can vary widely in quality and quantity. The average wage for a live-in the Los Angeles area is about $3.80 an hour for what is often a 16-hour-a-day, six-day-a-week job. This money is often exchanged under the table so that taxes, Social Security and other benefits are not collected nor wages reported. Health insurance and pension plans are unheard of, and vacations are iffy, dependent on the generosity of the employer who is accountable to no one.

These women may be single or they may have children. If they are mothers, they may have arranged what Sotelo has described as “transnational motherhood.” The children remain behind in the mother’s native land, often with grandmothers or other family members, until the live-in moves up this very short career ladder to the next rung -- a live-out housekeeper and nanny. This type of domestic worker lives elsewhere but reports to the same house daily and often works long hours, usually by herself. The pay is a little better and the sense of isolation is diminished.

Housekeepers or “cleaning ladies” represent the top rung on this career ladder. They clean a different house every day. Their workday is shorter, maybe six hours, enabling them to be home in time to greet their school-age children. And the pay is much better, $300 a week or more.

Yet there are still major issues about the emotional relationship between these women and their employers and their families. The domestic workers long for a relationship characterized by personalism, which Sotelo defines as “a bilateral relationship that involves two individuals recognizing each other not solely in terms of their role or office but rather as persons embedded in a unique set of social relations and with particular aspirations.”

Some employers exhibit maternalism -- “a unilateral positioning of the employer as a benefactor who receives personal thanks, recognition and validation of self from the domestic worker.” Other employers treat them coldly, as though they were invisible. Or worse, employers become verbally abusive, leading to immediate termination that could mean the loss of food and shelter for a live-in. Live-ins and even live-outs may become very attached to the employer’s children, who spend far more time with this “hired help” than they do with their own parents. Sudden job loss means not only the loss of income but the affection of the children they cared for so lovingly.

One of the major complaints of the workers is that their employers do not define exactly what is expected of them. The employee, as Sotelo describes it, “is often left to intuitively figure out what needs to be done.” A pediatric nurse with two young children describes the ideal nanny/housekeeper as “somebody who can know what you need before you have to ask -- like just know you that well.” The employers -- it is almost always the woman of the household who is responsible for the domestic worker’s working conditions and wages -- claim they are too harried to get involved with their workers or that they’re more comfortable keeping their distance.

While personalism is no substitute for better wages or working conditions, the absence of it ensures that this work is experienced as degrading by those who do it.

In the last section of her book, Sotelo offers some solutions to the conditions faced by domestic workers. She reviews existing labor and tax laws and commends the Domestic Workers Association, a division of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. All profits from the book will be donated to the association.

To be sure, this book is no page-turner, more of a sociological report. But it shines a light where many of us would rather not look -- at an invisible workplace where Latina immigrant women work long hours at low wages so their employers can work long hours at higher wages with the assurance that their children and their stuff is being taken care of. This arrangement works well for the employer, but it leaves these domestic workers vulnerable and ripe for exploitation.

Rosemary Johnston is program director of the Interfaith Shelter Network in San Diego and a founding member of the Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights.

National Catholic Reporter, May 25, 2001