The comfort and conflict of domestic work
I haven't done laundry, cleaned a bathroom, or mopped a floor in years. My wife and I spend about 20% of our income on domestic workers and it's great. It's also terrible. Domestic work is the both the most valuable and least valued work in the world.
In our home, Renuka turns down the bed and cleans the house every day. Sundari takes care of the kids so we can read and write. Anjala comes in once a week to iron and fold the laundry. These people spend time away from their families to take care of our family. It's work.
At the same time it's not work. There's no contracts, no retirement, no laws. Sri Lanka has strong labor laws, but domestic work is excluded. We asked our staff if they wanted to work under a company (Household Inc.), but they weren't interested. It's a hack to the system and doesn't change the fact that the system doen't work. We try to be good employers but it's all voluntary. We have all the power and we could be awful if we wanted to be. Many people are.
Recently a young girl named Hishalini lit herself on fire in her employer's house. There are serious allegations that she was physically and sexually abused. She was 16 years old. She came from the plantation community, descendants of bonded labor brought by the British, who are still being exploited today. This is the same community our staff comes from. I didn't start the fire, but it certainly keeps me warm. We try to be 'good' employers, but are we not complicit too?
How do I even talk about this? What words do I even use? Some people still call old domestic workers boys or girls. This of course reflects the fact that child labor was common for years. You can call them 'staff' or 'domestics' to be posh, but the word 'servant' still seems more accurate. It's not just that there aren't job contracts. We don't even agree on words.
In practice we don't talk about servants much at all. They're hidden, always outside the photograph, their work most successful when you notice nothing at all. No mess. No dishes. No dirty clothes. Nothing on the floor.
But where does nothing coming from? It's all someone's labor. It's someone not working in their own home to work in ours. I once read that the act of cooking is someone predigesting food for you. Through heat and labor they break it down, to release energy to you. Cooking, cleaning, driving, caring this is all the work closest to our bodies and hearts.
"But I don't have servants", you might say, "it's just that feudal culture you're from." Well, look around, where does your food come from? Who drives you around? Who takes care of you? Westerners have servants too. They just hide them behind corporations, behind algorithms, sometimes outside of the country entirely. In many ways this is worse. We at least have relationships with our servants. You don't have a human connection with yours at all.
DoorDashers, Uber drivers, the entire gig economy is just servants hidden behind algorithms. The entire supply chain of next-day delivery and cheap goods is people's labor coming into your home. Migrant workers picking your food, the outsourcing of production, this is all people serving you. And of course people do have maids as well, though it's always baffled me that American celebrities get DUIs and don't have drivers.
Look at the labels on your clothes, taste the vegetables in your fridge, hold the edges of your phone. Human hands have touched these. They have done work for you. Every day a thousand hands clothe you, they feed you, they give you life. Just because you don't see them doesn't mean they're not there. It just means you don't see them.
In our old, demented feudal system we at least can't look away. People still build homes for staff, provide loans, help their children out. Noblesse oblige, if they get around to it, which is rarely but not never. In the modern capitalist system you're not obligated to shit. The consumer is king, with even less responsibility. If you make eye contact and smile you're a hero. If you tip 20% you're Beowulf.
As Michael Corleone said, we're both part of the same hypocrisy. And unfortunately it does apply to my family. It's in my home. As a writer I have time. That's something I buy from someone else. That is their work.
The children are asleep, and tomorrow their beds will make themselves. Their Legos will disappear. Someone just rings the bell and groceries walk into the fridge. There's a lot of management of relationships, but I don't even do that, my wife does.
I sit in this clean room and create, but someone clears that room for me. The absence of work is someone else's work. Look around the numerous conveniences in your life. Who has made room for you? Who's doing the work you don't do?
I'm a wildly unreliable narrator here, it's like asking a landlord about rent control. For direct perspective ask the Batticaloa Domestic Workers Union (no link, you'll have to go to Batticaloa), ask Ai-jen Poo, ask the domestic workers around you. Or maybe ask yourself, I've been using 'you' liberally, I don't know you.
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