Despite predictions by some sociologists that paid domestic work would be irrelevant in a modern world, it continues to flourish worldwide. Within Europe, paid domestic work is increasingly seen as part of a multi-pronged approach towards work–life balance for the middle-class worker. Even within feminism similar proposals have been made in the past: in The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan recommended that hiring a housekeeper was one way the higher-educated middle-class woman could ‘have it all’. She herself drew on paid domestic help while writing her seminal text. Other feminists have analysed the social relations of paid domestic work in depth to show how they uniquely reproduce race, class and gender inequalities. This excellent body of work has highlighted important ways in which domestic workers, who are increasingly predominantly women, have been and continue to be exploited.
However, most Western research has focused on the experiences of non-White domestic workers working for mostly White service-users. Qualitative research on contemporary White British women working as cleaners is sparse, and the little published research endorses the stereotypical image of a White British cleaner: a working-class woman with minimal qualifications, familial care responsibilities, limited work opportunities, dependent on benefits and who works cash-in-hand. While statistical estimates of paid domestic work are particularly inaccurate due to many methodological challenges, in the UK, the Labour Force Survey (LFS) can be used to assess trends. Between January 2011 and March 2015, 0.9 per cent of the people in employment who entered the LFS were likely to be working as domestic cleaners, of whom the majority were White British women. A third of the cleaners were self-employed. Among the White British women in this group, the majority had level 1–2 qualifications, but nearly a third had level 3–6 qualifications (A levels to degree qualifications), the same proportion as those with no qualifications. Why are these women working as cleaners when they have other work opportunities available to them? My research aims to shed light on these women’s work decisions through a consideration of the following research questions:
1. Who uses and who supplies cleaning services in present times in the two contrasting cultures of the UK and India?
2. How do White British and Indian women who provide cleaning services and White and Indian academic women who use these services (and have an interest in feminism/gender) conceptualise cleaning as work in the UK and India respectively?
3. How does paid-for domestic cleaning fit in current understandings of work and ‘paid’ work?
I am currently analysing my data, which includes semi-structured interviews with White British women working as self-employed domestic cleaning service-providers in the North East, North West, and the Midlands regions of England, and Indian women in Northern India; semi-structured interviews with academic women with an interest in feminism/gender issues who use such services) working in the same regions in the UK and India; internet forum discussions on cleaners; and survey data and media reporting on cleaners in the UK and India.
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