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Domestic Workers

Domestic Workers

Domestic workers (also called domestic servants and household workers) are those who are paid to perform personal or domestic service within households other than their own. In the Americas, wherever there have been significant numbers of Africans or persons of African descent, some of them have been involved in and associated with domestic work; and where there have been blacks performing domestic work, these have primarily been black female domestic workers, "doing the dirty work." However, the paid domestic work performed by black female workers has its antecedents in the slavery that so marked and shaped the black experience in the Americas. The links between "domestic slavery" and "domestic work" for black female workers are as strong as they are poignant.

Without a doubt, in most slave societies, the focus of the slaveholders was on productivity and economic gain; enslaved African labor was deployed with those twinned goals, and their commensurate benefits, in mind. However, enslaved Africans and their descendants were also used to provide personal service for those who had invested in their bodies: these were the domestic slaves. In the areas of the region where the enslaved black populations were large (the Caribbean, Brazil, the southern United States), there were slaves who functioned almost exclusively as domestic workers, constituting between five and fifteen percent of the enslaved population. In places where the enslaved black populations were smaller or where slaveholders owned five or fewer slaves (e.g., in New England or British North America), the domestic slaves also performed heavy agricultural work. In those places where enslaved Africans were few, and where they were a minority among aboriginal slaves (e.g., New France), they spent most of their lives performing domestic service. Yet like their counterparts elsewhere, they were constant symbols of the slaveholders' prosperity and power.

Enslaved persons who were chosen to perform domestic labor were sometimes selected because of their perceived affinity for and skill in providing the sort of personal service that was required. But sometimes the choice of a domestic worker was made on the grounds of race and color: there was an abiding belief that enslaved persons who were of lighter complexion were less able to withstand the rigors of agricultural labor, so they were "saved" by domestic work. What was at issue with the cadre of lighter colored slaves (mulattos or "coloreds" in the Caribbean) was that they were part white and, by virtue of that, believed to be more delicate. In truth, very often they were the children of the slaveholders or their white employees. The "colored domestic slaves" then, represented many aspects of the slave societies where they were forced to work, and they often operated as a buffer group between the masses of enslaved blacks and the white slaveholding class. They both resulted from and represented the (often violent) sexual contact between the races (even where that contact was illicit). Their circumstances were, indeed, curious; they performed domestic work for households that were sometimes headed by their biological fathers, who owned them.

During the nineteenth century, as slavery was slowly abolished across the hemisphere, the transition from forced labor to paid domestic work did not mean an end to the association between the formerly oppressed state of slaves and the personal service that domestic workers were hired to perform after slavery. In societies where social and economic categorizations ran along the same fault lines as did racial groupings, many domestic workers were triply disadvantaged: they were poor, they were almost always black, and the vast majority of them (more than 90%) were women.

Whether during the period of slavery or for many decades after its end, the tasks that black female domestic workers had to perform were not easy: often food preparation was over an open flame (with numerous reports of injury), laundry was done by hand in water that the worker had to fetch, the house was cleaned with cloths and rags (often on hands and knees), and child care consisted of an ongoing series of demands. All of these tasks were carried out according to the demands and standards of employers who watched, "supervised," and criticized every small detail. The symbolic and real relations of exploitation and subordination were clear.

In many ways, the domestic-service sector ran counter to the developments that were taking place in many other occupations; by its location, poor remuneration, conditions of work, and labor relations, domestic service seemed decidedly precapitalist. While other types of employment were affected by the increasingly applied template of "modernity," which separated workers from workplaces that were also households, domestic workers continued to labor in the home.

The remuneration that domestic workers commanded was very often among the lowest among workers. Part of the challenge that domestic workers faced was the fundamental categorization of their work as not productivetheir labors were often excluded from national account statistics, and in some circumstances they were labeled as earners and consumers, but not as producers. Their situation was further complicated by the variety of wages that many domestic workers receivedcash wages, cash in kind (e.g., food, housing, clothing), and often combinations of these types of wages. Where the cash nexus characterized other working experiences as "modern," this haphazard way of paying domestic workers not only indicated remnants of precapitalist labor conditions, but it marked those who received (often discarded) goods as payment as dependents whose circumstances had not greatly improved over those of their foremothers.

The conditions of work that many black female domestic workers experienced were determined by their geographical locations, the positions that they were employed to fill, and whether they were "live-in" or "live-out" servants. Workers who operated in urban areas were sometimes relieved of some of the harsher aspects of rural domestic work (e.g., fetching water, procuring firewood) because many urban employers enjoyed higher material standards than their rural counterparts. The positions that domestic workers filled helped to determine exactly what was involved in their daily tasks. However, few domestic workers were treated as skilled workers; the majority tended to be drawn from a large labor force, expendable and invisible.

It is in the area of labor relationsthat curious employer-employee connectionthat the precapitalist nature of domestic work was most apparent. In some societies in the Americas, that relationship was defined by long histories of paternalism, prescribed by law and custom, that gave the "master" control over all who were in his house. Thus, while the laws might have changed, the attitudes remained long in place. Since these societies were affected by the ideologies of race and hierarchy, the emphasis on difference and the expectations of deference made the circumstances of black female domestic workers exceedingly complex. Where both employer and employee were black or colored, they used other means, such as uniforms, to differentiate and separate themselves.

In the attempt to control the activities and actors within their households, many employers sought to recruit young, unattached female domestic workers, whom they thought would be most easily controlled. They attempted to determine how their employees should live (where they should go, what they should do, who they should spend time with) because, for many employers, domestic workers gave "dignity" to their households, and since the workers represented those households, their behavior needed to be controlled. In response to these attempts, some domestic workers accepted the proscriptions, while many others resisted them by the only means they couldthey left their jobs.

Domestic workers were often in the vanguard of the movement out of the depressed social and economic circumstances that so many black persons in the Americas continued to experience. In their attempts to better their circumstances, many migrated from rural areas into urban centers. During the Great Migration of the early 1900s, thousands of blacks in the United states migrated from the rural south to the cities of the north. However, this movement did not necessarily alleviate the unemployment and underemployment that blacks were trying to address. Some workers even crossed international borders in search of better circumstances. Within the Caribbean, some women migrated to territories (for example to Aruba) that were able to offer jobs and levels of remuneration not available in their own countries. Having left their families behind to labor in isolation, these women found that they were no more "at home" in their places of employment, even after decades of work.

Since the twentieth century, by various schemes and means, there has been a steady flow of black women out of the Caribbean and into North America to perform domestic work. Some of them have arrived on governmentsupported schemes (e.g., to Canada), after extensive screening to make sure that they are the "right type" to provide personal service, and many arrive on their own auspices. Even more recently, some of the women willing to take these jobs, which closely define their status in the country, were not domestic workers in their home countries, but were professionals who are now willing to work as servants in order to leave economic and personal difficulties behind. The situation is similar among those who go to the United States, for even as many African-American women move out of domestic work, their place is taken by a silent army of "undocumented" black female domestic workers from the Caribbean. Having made the decision to migrate, many of these former professionals find that the remuneration and conditions of work leave them barely able to survive.

Still largely relegated to the bottom of hierarchies constructed along lines of class, race, or gender, black female domestic workers are increasingly organized. They continue to struggle for the reward and respect that their hard work, unacknowledged and often unrecorded, ought to provide.

See also Economic Condition, U.S.; Labor and Labor Unions


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michele a. johnson (2005)

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