by Dominique Suberville
The Informality of Domestic Labor
“I need a live-in maid!,” “I need a contract maid!” are phrases I frequently encounter on Facebook.
In San Pedro Garza Garcia, NL, with all of its wealth, the exchanging of “maids,” or housekeepers, functions like an auction house where women of privilege establish their housekeeping needs and they are responded through the comment section with options of women (never by name) with their respective set of skills (cooking, cleaning, etc.).
México has approximately 2.2 million people that occupy a position in domestic labor sector. Of that number, according to the INEGI, 96 out of 100 are women. In Nuevo León, 40 thousand of these employees are indigenous women. Unfortunately, even when some of the employing families consider these women as part of their family unit, the statistic published by the INEGI show that only 2 out of 100 of Mexican domestic workers are afforded health insurance as part of their workers rights.
I don’t fully know how I feel when I read those Facebook statuses in which people state a “need” for a housekeeper. It’s a Mexican tradition to “need” help at home, but so is the need to be supported by a system which constantly seems to take advantage of us.
Furthermore, beyond the failure to deliver full labor rights, domestic workers express a failure in their treatment as a human entity. They express frequent mistreatment, humiliation, and excessive work with little pay. It’s true that they are exempted from paying taxes and therefore their work is considered voluntary, but their survival is not only a responsibility that falls upon the State, rather it falls upon our society as a whole.
In order to have this conversation as it should be had, it is not enough to speak only in economic terms, but rather that of the social and semantic factors involved. What does it say about our society when we refer to an impoverished population as a commodity?
This habit of looking for employees through social media is not unusual. It’s the easiest way and there’s the trust factor that comes in when having someone enter your home. Therefore, it makes sense that people will search for a housekeeper within their community. This practice is also repeated in other kinds of labor, such as that of freelancers: programmers, graphic designers, and countless others. The difference lies on the mere fact that the conditions on which housekeepers work, don’t afford them the ability to say, “that is not my job.” because it is not about the commodification of a set of skills acquired through vocation and education, but rather the commodification of legal slavery.
The Other Side of the Coin
It would be unfair to discuss this topic without mentioning another reality to this work relationship. The housekeeping population comes with its own set of problems that cause friction and affective discord. It is known that many of them will take advantage of those that employ them due to the fact that their survival instincts are based on starkly different conditions from the employing population. It’s very different cultures living under a same roof. It’s two different socioeconomic statuses coexisting in the most harmonic way possible under the condition that one has power and the other follows orders.
It’s a complex relationship when someone living in poverty and without education is forced to work in a situation where their main purpose is to clean up after a person of privilege. It’s not just observing that privilege, but the dialogue to which they are privy to. It’s vastly different worlds living under the room while the scheme of power and submission is upheld. Furthermore, while some hold a long-term job in a single home, most jump from home to home which makes offering social security costly and tedious for employers. It is not unusual that many will simply stop showing up for work or will ask for more money for personal use.
It is imperative to consider that this population, that of domestic workers, is composed in large part of young people between the ages of 15 and 19 with barely a primary education, if any. It is not the same thing to commodify a job that requires a higher education to one of a young indigenous population that lives in poverty, has financial needs, and no schooling. Many of these women suffer physical abuse in their own homes, are single mothers, and are the main breadwinners of their families. It’s worth mentioning that many of them also live almost full time in their employers homes, away from their own home, family, and community.
Their quality of life with their subjective worlds, defines the manner in which they do their job. It is not about placing blame or victimizing these women, but about understanding that perspective formed by experiences of a population we understand to have serious problems.
Let’s Be Aware
With this, I propose that we question how it is that we speak about and treat a sector of our population with needs far more severe than those that hire them. There’s a dissonance between the sentiment of “trust” that is expressed about them and the informal way we refer to them with others along with the general treatment they receive within our society. It is this treatment that forms part of their quality of life outside of their place of work.
We must be precarious in the way we talk about these working women who have survival as their main purpose. When I see those Facebook statuses, I observe a language that reflects something to do with commodities for rent, or worse, for sale. We as a society, have a responsibility to everyone who participates in our economy. Whether that participation is formal or informal, it’s a responsibility towards mutual respect.
With this, we must also question what exactly we mean by needing maids. Even though it is a legitimate labor sector and part of the composition of our society; it’s a sector made up of women who travel from state to state in search of better opportunities. We must begin with questioning how it is that we can help them beyond a minimum salary established by a system that denies them their basic rights as Mexican citizens. Question why they are unable to climb up the economic and social ladder and how we as a society contribute to that reality.