Home Economics

Helma Lutz, The New Maids: Transnational Women in the Care Economy

Zed Books, 256pp, £18.99, ISBN 9781848132887

reviewed by Zoe Williams

The stated questions of Helma Lutz’s book, The New Maids: Transnational Women in the Care Economy, are these – ‘whether and how domestic / care work changes when it becomes commodified; whether gender transformations take place in the employers’ households as a result of the “new maids” working there, and if so, in what direction; and finally, what consequences this transnational service employment has for family and gender relationships in the countries of origin’. The breadth of her references tell immediately, in the sheer scope of the questions there are to ask about modern domesticity – a German study mentioned in passing finds that young fathers react to the birth of their first child by working harder, not spending more time at home; by that detail alone, you can see a world unfurl in which the gender revolution is in many ways a chimera, a game people play pre-parenthood, like bungee jumping.

Lutz distils the inexorable changes that have been, and remain to be made, as the private household intersects with the wider society. Care needs will increase, as the population ages: yet as the working population diminishes, skilled women in it will be commensurately more in demand, and less able to undertake that care. ‘Conservative cultural codings,’ she writes, have a ‘tenacious hold’ on the majority of EU member states, wherein men still feel emasculated by domestic work. These gender codings have not only defied the dreams of the feminist revolution; they also determine the people to whom domestic work is outsourced. It is not transnational men, but transnational women, who pick up the discarded pants of the new century’s family. And – whether through a persistent social undervaluation of work considered female, or a failure of women to negotiate effectively for themselves, or a symbiosis of the two wherein the fact of the undervaluation becomes more solid and immovable than any of the factors feeding into it – that has brought us to this pass, where domestic work is a nidus of exploitation. ‘The private household,’ says the Seventh Report on the Family ‘is the sector of employment with the highest proportion of unprotected, illegal employment.’ Lutz concludes very early on that ‘unless there is a debate about society’s differential valuation of paid employment and family duties as the expression of asymmetrical gender structures, no amount o discourse about professionalization will lead to models of work with any prospect of future sustainability’.

The solidity of her arguments brings one up short, against verities both ancient and topical. What created this classic split, where ‘productivity is contributed in the workplace…[while] the private sphere is defined by consumption’? Clearly, it is partly practical, and down to the fact that public work produces permanent, measurable outcomes, where household work produces quite evanescent outcomes, like tidiness (as Adam Smith had it, ‘tasks which seldom leave any trace or value behind them’). The 21st century, Lutz notes neutrally, has generally upheld Smith’s assessment. I personally find Smith’s explanation unsatisfactory. If it’s dusting, it’s too trivial for money; if it’s giving birth, it’s too momentous. There’s a misogynistic backdraft that has always sought to put the work of women outside calculable value, all the better not to render payment that might give women agency in the marketplace.

Anyway, all of this – the undervaluing of women’s work, the feminist revolution in the developed world and subsequent failure to import it domestically (even as it flourished for women in the public sphere), the delegation to foreign women not just of household tasks but of the low status associated with them, has had a huge impact. It has led to a ‘refeudalization’ in the host nations, and gaping holes left in the social structure of the emigrés’ home nations. It has changed the economies of both, as well as gender relations (while not significantly altering those conservative cultural codings – indeed, I could not escape the conclusion that, without illegal, unregulated migrant labour, men and women would have had to reach domestic parity eventually, or else just stop procreating. The transnational labour market has deferred a battle that was closer to resolution in the Seventies than it was in the Nineties, potentially for as many more decades as that developed/ developing world split still obtains).

It is unarguable, then, that this is a vital area of study – the sheer practical exploitations, the lack of employee protection, of sick pay, of holiday entitlement, the precarious, terrified, often illegal existences of migrant domestic workers demand this work urgently. Methodologically, Lutz’s study ran as follows: detailed interviews were undertaken with 27 employees, and 21 employers. They always took place in the interviewee’s native tongue. Originally, researchers tried to work alongside the employees, and interview them as they worked, but found this to be artificial and distracting. There was a preponderance of women in both groups, because ‘we had to rely on people’s willingness to provide information and, as many qualitative studies have shown, this willingness differs gender-specifically; in other words: women are more likely to agree to be interviewed’. I quote that bulky sentence to raise my first objection. I realise that it’s part of the lexicon of being an academic that you have to be unashamed by your jargon, your ‘intersectional’ and your ‘doing-gender’, that if you’re going to enter this fray, you can’t hamstring yourself by trying to be understood by and appeal to the layperson. And yet in a sentence where the whole is so easily simplified, you’d think some sense would take over in the edit. The writing is often sesquipedalian and baggy.

So, ok, while I’m here, I also quibble with the sample – not the gender split or the very idea of a qualitative study, which is a conversation for another day – but the fact that ‘there was not one instance of a legal employment relationship in our sample’. It’s true that the most interesting thing about this terrain is its lack of regulation, its Wild West practises and the antiquity of its conventions – Lutz makes the fascinating point that there is rarely, if ever, a contract between the employee and the employer, and it is not unusual for the employer to hand over a key to their home at the first meeting. This total lack of caution Lutz discusses in terms of trust, making it quite clear all along that what underpins this trust is a total imbalance. The employees are all illegal. The employers have all the cards. No wonder they don’t worry about their needs being met.

However, not all cleaners in these environs or any other are illegal, and not all operate without paperwork. Since it is part of the project’s explicit aim to examine the ways in which these relationships work and evolve, it seems cussed to omit to find an example of a legitimate one – it seems, frankly, as if the author has deliberately selected a sample that will best convey exploitation. And actually, as it unfolds, it is even a little bit more partial than that – the employer sample is not just united in illegitimacy, but they are generally academic or arty, they consider themselves to be part of an ‘alternative milieu’, they are choreographers or directors, they call themselves creative. And yet, in behaviour, they exhibit classic feudal attitudes, where the cleaner or au pair isn’t so much a person in the market, engaged in a mutually beneficial contract, but rather, a person whose needs are wholly subservient to the family’s. A particularly rebarbative example is the academic Ursula Pelz who, asked why she has kept her au pair on for nine years, with no thought for Tamara Jagellowsk’s educational prospects or life beyond the care of the Pelz offspring, says ‘it would be too much for me, I think, if I had to take responsibility for that whole side of things as well’ (‘that whole side of things’ meaning, here, ‘any aspect of that human being that doesn’t relate to the wellbeing of me and mine’).

What troubles me is that there was no need only to interview hypocrites – perhaps it was beyond the work of the research corps to find anyone in Berlin who was hiring a cleaner legally, but it must have been perfectly plausible to find employers who weren’t left-leaning, and therefore whose rationalisations weren’t so opaquely self-serving and transparently hypocritical. So ultimately, it’s impossible not to divine that there’s an agenda, here. Indeed, that this is not so much a work of academic research as a polemic, against the delusions of a very particular class of developed world intellectuals. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t some very illuminating, acute observations. To stick with this same dyad, Pelz says of Jagellowsk, ‘she’s just extra-resilient, you know – that’s probably an advantage of Eastern European women.’ Lutz remarks, ‘It becomes clear that Ursula Pelz is not praising the person but ethnicizing her willingness to suffer.’

Nevertheless, the efficacy of polemic is largely in its boldness, and if you won’t even admit to an underlying stance, that diminishes the power considerably. Again, because of the density of the academic language, it is tempting to defer to it, but when it intersects with a situation I understand, I find that I disagree forcefully with its assumptions. One example: a new mother, Gurdrun Baumer, has a baby-sitter, Sylwia Pavel, caring for her baby four times a week. She says ‘A few times, I actually had little panic attacks here. What’s she – what might be happening with my child, you know. So I called her on her mobile phone and asked, “where are you right now?”’

Lutz concludes, ‘Rather than trusting her baby-minder, Gurdrun Baumer checks up on her via her mobile phone. She is angry… [and] accounts for her disagreements in terms of Sylwia Pavel’s inadequate command of German.’ It is clear to any onlooker – well, to me – that this is just the neurosis of the new mother. I would go as far as to surmise that Baumer would have checked up on anybody in this way, her own husband, her own mother. That’s what having a new baby is like. That’s why the phrase ‘separation anxiety’ exists for the state of new motherhood. The racist subtext is an inference too far; indeed, even if Baumer had said outright that the problem was one of language (she didn’t) I still wouldn’t have bought it.

Another example: there is a column in the German newspaper Taz in which a breach of trust is described – the employer saw the cleaner as a member of the family, but found out that she was only doing two hours of cleaning, while she was being paid for four. The employer’s sense of betrayal is immense. Lutz notes, ‘more than any other type of article, columns are directly addressed to the core readership of the newspaper in question and tailored to the worldview and lifestyle of its readers. By implication, then, consumers of Taz have evidently joined the ranks of those who employ domestic help’. Now this is a world I understand; some columnists are directly addressed to core readership, but often – usually - a column will be there to provoke, to shake up the precepts of the core readership, to set the cat amongst the pigeons (Liz Jones, anyone?). You can argue that this is a poor use of editorial influence, but you can’t ignore this function. I distrust a reading that takes such an example as a clean insight into a social norm.

In short, the findings of this book are complicated – it asks the right questions, and I believe seeks the answers from a humane, reasonable perspective. But in the colourless language of its approach, it seeks to disguise a very trenchant standpoint. This dents its credibility; it doesn’t, ultimately, capsize it.
Zoe Williams is a columnist on the Guardian, and author of Bring it on, Baby.