Friday, May 22, 2009

What constitutes domestic work and exploitation (by Suzie)

          Recently, I was trying to explain to T and P, two Fulbright scholars from Asia, why white feminists have been excoriated for hiring women of color to do domestic work.
          T studies feminism and postcolonialism. I don’t know P as well but she seems to support feminist ideas. Neither is rich in her home country, but both hire people to do domestic chores, a common practice in many developing nations.
          In “Feminist Anthropology,” Ellen Lewin cites critics of middle-class American women who act like they’re being charitable when they hire someone to do domestic work and don't treat it like a regular job, with structured job descriptions and proper pay.
          But U.S. women didn't invent that approach; I have no idea how far back it goes. Both T and P consider hiring the less fortunate to do domestic work as a charitable act, in part. They say they treat employees as family members, to some extent, such as paying for the schooling of children.
          I can understand people who want domestic labor to be treated more professionally, but I don’t think people who treat it less formally are necessarily less feminist. I’ve got two white American friends who are doing cleaning to make ends meet, but they aren’t bonded or licensed, and they can make more money with more flexible hours than if they go to work for an agency. 
          The people whom T and P hire often face barriers to other employment, perhaps because of their gender, ethnicity or religion. They may be looked down upon as country people. They may lack formal schooling.
          T and P oppose oppression, but they benefit from the existence of people who will work hard for little money. To a much greater degree, this holds true in richer countries like the U.S.
          For another aspect, here's what Anna Carastathis wrote on the Canadian site Kick Action about the feminism of 1960s and '70s:
Privileged white feminists fought for increased access to professional jobs that were male dominated, ignoring the fact that women of colour, immigrant women, and working class white women were being overworked, often in places far away from their families, just to survive and support their children -- sometimes in white feminists’ homes, cleaning their floors and caring for their children.
For privileged white feminists, the problem became the “double shift”: working during the day in a professional job, and coming home in the evening only to work more, caring for their husbands and children.
To lessen this workload, instead of demanding that their husbands pull their weight, or that the state provide an adequate accessible childcare, domestic work became offloaded to women of colour.
          In the U.S., feminists of different races worked hard to try to make childcare available, and they have tried to get husbands to do more household duties. Many white feminists have been involved in antiracist work. And some women of color, immigrant women (like my aunts) and poor white women (like me) benefited from professions hiring more women. I’ve written at greater length on this before.
           Few of us are self-sufficient. Many depend on other people to grow, harvest, process, cook, package, transport, etc., at least some of our food. The same goes for clothing and household items. This work used to be done at home; it was once domestic work. Now many of us – including “women of colour, immigrant women, and working class white women” - “offload” this work on others who may have left their families behind to get jobs, and who make less money than we do under worse conditions – including in countries where T and P come from.
            The woman who buys a new top at Target without wondering about the people who grew the cotton, picked it, processed it, sewed it and shipped it … the woman who doesn’t wonder how these employees were treated by their supervisors or how much they got paid … is she worse than the woman who pays her nanny too little? 
            Elle, Ph.D., says white feminists have had a hard time accepting that they “have and do benefit from the relegation of women of color to low-wage, low-status ‘reproductive’ work.”
            I would expand that concept to many people, regardless of color. It's so easy to forget those who live far away and whose names we do not know.
           ETA: Just to be clear, I'm not trying to criticize T&P, who do much good work. I'm criticizing those who would criticize them.