Controversies of Hired Help – An Affluent Woman’s Concern

How do you feel about the need among middle and upper class women to hire domestic workers to help with household duties? Growing up in a poor single parent immigrant household, members of my immediate family were more likely be the help than hire the help. Now that I’m a middle class educated woman surrounded by similarly affluent women, I find myself listening to conversations about hiring or dealing with domestic workers. Some of these conversations are uncomfortable.

My husband and I are “DINKS” (dual income no kids) and we live in a small condo. The stresses of domestic work are minimal. When we’re up to it, we can probably clean our house top to bottom in less than an hour. (We’re rarely up to it.) It almost goes without saying that since our parents’ generation women have been active participants in the public sphere having careers and bringing home significant portions of the “bacon.” Yet the responsibilities of private and domestic work (childcare, cleaning, and cooking) haven’t shifted to the middle as drastically.

Often when women choose to focus on one arena of their lives, they do so at the expense of the other. It’s not so black and white though. Many women attempt to balance both career and domestic responsibilities at varying degrees (some women, like my mom, have no choice other than to balance both) but at some point or another ALL of my friends who are moms or are attached have felt guilty about not being a good enough mother/worker/partner. To “have it all” – a career, time with family, and a clean house – many affluent women hire help.

A vast majority of these helpers come from developing countries, or are immigrants, or are working class/poor women. They most likely don’t get work benefits, aren’t part of a union, have physically demanding tasks, get low wages, and have their own families to care for as well. I just read a book (for class) called “Servants of Globalization: Women, Migration, and Domestic Work” by Rachel Salazar Parrenas who addressed some of the significant sacrifices these women make to enable affluent women in developing nations to “have it all.” Often these migrant workers are faced with hard choices to either leave behind their family so they can provide for them economically or to remain in a cycle of third world poverty. Additionally, these workers have very little job security and protection, and are at the mercy of their employers which has led to exploitation and abuse.

Clearly, reading this book inspired today’s post as it got me thinking about how affluent Western women, who hire substantial domestic help, are on one hand assisting these women by giving them employment but on another hand perpetuating a cycle of inequality by accepting the terms of these worker’s poor laboring conditions and turning a blind eye to their personal sacrifices.

As I aspire one day to “have it all,” I worry about how I’m going to achieve that. At one point or another, I may very well be tempted to hire regular help for childcare or household duties. Fortunately, my husband and I discuss division of domestic labor very openly and we feel satisfied (most days) with how we’ve shared those responsibilities. But we also don’t have a screaming, crying, all consuming baby. We already know his work doesn’t give family leave nor do they expect his work performance or commitment to decline as a result of becoming a dad. Society has progressed to accommodate women in the workforce but it hasn’t quite figured out how to relieve men of their career duties to help at home. Until then, the controversial need to hire help won’t start to lessen.

I’m also fully aware that I’m only able to have this conversation because of my tremendous position of privilege. Considering my humble beginning, this topic brings up a lot of internal conflict.


2 thoughts on “Controversies of Hired Help – An Affluent Woman’s Concern

  1. I recommend Fellows and Razack’s piece, The Race to Innocence: Confronting Hierarchical Relations Among Women in the Journal of gender, race and justice – though this may only reinforce your internal conflict!

    I would also add that this isn’t just an issue of hierarchical relations among women. There is also the issue of a nation’s position on meeting social needs. Canada does not have a universal childcare program. If there was one (and yes, I realize that this means I pay more taxes but I am okay with that), it would mean that working women (and it’s not just affluent working women who need affordable, QUALITY childcare) can work while their children are cared for by other qualified people. And the fact is, there is AMPLE evidence that shows that children who are provided quality childcare thrive to the same degree as children who are cared for by their mothers (and I deliberately say mothers here b/c that’s the assumption right, that mothers are the only ‘true’ caregivers). What does this mean for women migrants who wish to get out of the cycle of poverty and support their families? They could potentially work in regulated daycares that could have greater job security – granted, knowing how racism continues to operate in access to employment, they would face barriers in gaining access to this type of employment. Anyway, as your post shows…it’s complicated./ps: welcome back

    1. Thanks for your comments Another Yuka. The book you mentioned is on my ever expanding reading list. I absolutely agree that this issue isn’t only about hierarchical relations among women. The framework of the book that inspired this post also addressed issues of globalization and the unequal relationships between sending and receiving countries. I also agree with you about challenging the nation’s position on meeting social needs. We (America) aren’t even close to entertaining the idea of implementing certain maternal(family)-child health policies that Canada has going. That being said, I appreciate that both countries still have a lot of work to do. Like you mentioned it’s not just affluent women who are concerned with providing quality childcare. Family policies intertwined with employment end up excluding non-salaried, non-unionized workers and part time workers which are disproportionately represented by non-affluent women. We (America) are still in the process of moving away from employer based (and business model) health insurance so I’m not confident that this dialogue will reach center stage anytime soon. Considering America’s relatively high (compared to other industrial nations) infant mortality and other maternal-child health indicators, you’d think more substantial effort would be made to meet the needs of society. Instead we’re too busy fighting about ideological issues about birth control. It’s so very complicated!

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