The day my cleaner used to visit, I would return home in the evening to the smell of Dettol mixed with Tania’s sweat, to a clean kitchen and bathroom and a drenching sense of guilt. It was the same unease that greeted me when I collected my son Leo from his nursery – a national chain disproportionately staffed by women of colour – or bought clothes from a mainstream clothing outlet that relies, as many do, on female garment workers in the global south. My book, , is a result of the question that bubbled up from this sense of discomfort: can I hire a cleaner with a (clean) feminist conscience?
Bought-in domestic labour is an increasingly significant feature of middle-class home life. There are now 67 million domestic workers worldwide: they are cleaners and cooks, but also carers for children, the elderly and disabled. Their number is growing rapidly, as longer life expectancies combine with a climate in which fewer women forgo paid employment, to create a yawning global care gap. One in three Britons now pays a domestic cleaner, in a trend led by the urban under-35s, many of whom report contracting a cleaner, in 93% of cases a female cleaner, as a means of avoiding household disputes.
Calling out the unfair allocation of unpaid labour was a key project of second-wave feminism. The wages for housework movement demanded recognition for the financial value of the soothing, mopping and bottom-wiping that was called “women’s work” (over £70,000 a year in today’s money, they figured). Women’s libbers marched on New York and Washington bearing placards reading, brilliantly: “Don’t Iron While the Strike Is Hot.” But by the 1980s, mainstream feminist concerns had turned to the public sphere: to closing the gender pay gap and increasing women’s representation in parliament.
Foreign-born and irregular workers are vastly over-represented in domestic cleaning work
Of course, bottoms still needed to be wiped and toilet bowls cleaned – and British men did increase their domestic efforts in the 1980s and 90s (to 20 hours a week from the one hour and 20 mins of 1971 man) – yet the hand that pushed the sponge and thrust the brush was still, most often, female. From the mid-1980s, it was as likely to be the hand of a poorly paid migrant woman as of an unpaid spouse. As male contributions stalled, the “problem” of the gendered attribution of domestic labour was offloaded down a classed and racialised female labour line. A 2018 report by the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford found that foreign-born and irregular workers were vastly over-represented in domestic cleaning work.
For the book, I spent time under cover with the women who clean Britain’s offices and homes. I picked used tampons off bathroom carpets and scrubbed bathtub tidemarks and sauces spattered across kitchen walls; and I discovered a few things. That jobs in mid-range hotels, where cleaners are expected to “turn” rooms so fast they suffer RSI and panic attacks, are reviled over domestic and office-cleaning gigs; that many agencies prefer cleaners who don’t speak English – and don’t, therefore, have the wherewithal to argue for a fairer cut of the rate agencies charge clients (cleaners are paid about £8 of the average £13-an-hour client rate).
I learned that fashionable householders’ preference for less-effective eco and homemade cleaning products doubles cleaners’ labour. And I learned that the second-wave feminist rhetoric that positions housework as nasty and tedious “shitwork” also, quite naturally, alienates the workers who take pride in competently performing necessary work.
I ask: is it morally and economically reprehensible to contract out our domestic labour? And if this act is dubious from the point of view of many or most feminists, can we correct for this ethical quandary by contracting, say, a male cleaner, or paying our cleaner the hourly rate we earn? Many of the Britons I surveyed for the book who pay a domestic cleaner made an argument for such practices on the basis of job creation: “If you can afford it, it makes total sense to pay someone to do this. It attributes value to domestic labour.”
If we want to argue for the economic point, however, we need to follow it through: paying our domestic workers well (and directly) and offering them sickness and holiday pay. Feminist academic Arianne Shahvisi computes the fair-exchange price of a cleaner in the UK as follows: “An average UK employee earns £518 each week for working an average of 37 hours. Accounting for lunch breaks and statutory paid leave – to which a cleaner is generally not entitled – this means that an average person earns £18.14 per actual working hour. Adding in £3 for a return bus fare, a cleaner should therefore be paid £21.14 to clean for an hour, or £39.28 for a two-hour session (and more for those based in London).”
The average cleaner in London, however, earns just £8.89 an hour. Today, as part of International Women’s Strike (coinciding with International Women’s Day), cleaners, teachers and careworkers are marching, in London, Argentina and Madrid, to demand recognition of the social value of their work’.
For two months, I tried the fair pay option, contracting Jurate, a non-agency cleaner, and paying her, to her delight, £40 for a two-hour session. In the end, I couldn’t square this approach with my new knowledge about the relationship between paying a woman to clean my home and the structural devaluation of women’s work. The clincher, in the end, was my three-year-old son, who quizzically followed Jurate around the house as she squeezed her mop and brandished her ever-present Viakal. I did not want him to see the labour of some women as less worthwhile than the labour and leisure of other women and men. Middle-class women’s emancipation from housework has come at the cost of reinscribing poor women’s ties to it.
Did I find I could hire a cleaner with a clean conscience? No, but I found I could ease my feminist conscience by scrubbing my own toilet.
Sally Howard’s book, , is out now (Atlantic Books, £14.99)