The New Maids:
Transnational Women and the Care Economy

By Helma Lutz (trans. Deborah Shannon)

Book Review

Domestic work is characterised by its invisibility, the fact that almost all of it is performed by women – and that it is never-ending. As the refrain of an English song, dating from 1629, puts it: ‘a woman’s work is never done’ – and although it can it be outsourced, it cannot be exported (p. 187). In Europe it is now uncommon to have a live-in domestic servant. But if someone comes in to ‘help out’ – whether with cleaning, washing, ironing, or cooking, or with looking after the young, old, or infirm – that ‘someone’ is almost always a ‘cleaning woman’, a nanny or a ‘home help’. Increasingly, that ‘someone’ is also a migrant.

The relationship between the usually female employer (because women are still expected to do or get the housework done) and the usually female employee (who may have several clients, all with different demands and expectations), is far from straightforward. Helma Lutz explores some of the complications.

The first and most obvious concerns the legal status of the migrant and the nature of her contract of employment, if indeed she has one. If her papers are not in order, then she may need to conceal the fact that she working at all, which places her in the informal economy, beyond labour protection. Even if she has the right to work, formal contracts are rare for domestic work because they would entail meeting the costly obligations of social insurance, paid annual leave and sick leave, health and safety regulations, and so on. This creates a mutual interest in staying ‘under the radar’ of employment law, something which demands a high level of mutual trust: the migrant has to trust that her various employers will treat her fairly and not expose her to the authorities, and the employer has to trust that ‘her’ cleaner will be reliable, honest, and discreet.

Lutz undertook research in three major German cities, where migrant domestic workers tend to come from eastern Europe and Latin America. Her discussions on methodology usefully highlight the numerous problems such a project presents – it is not so simple, for example, to accompany a cleaner to someone else’s home in order to observe her on the job! Some migrants had only limited German, which meant that their interviews required the assistance of a research assistant-cum-translator, while other transcriptions lost something of the authenticity of the speaker’s broken but colourful German. For migrants, language is also a powerful indicator of status – it is even harder to negotiate terms if communication is monosyllabic: as one Uruguayan says, ‘I clean because I can’t speak’ (p. 68). And, as Lutz points out, by definition a migrant is relating simultaneously to more than one reality – not only is domestic work largely invisible but it also represents only one slice or segment of her identity. Much of what gives her life meaning, and explains her current circumstances, therefore lies beyond the scope of geographically bounded research.

Perhaps because of a tendency to focus on cases of egregious abuse, the literature
tends to cast the relationship between the middle-class employer and the workingclass migrant in rather simplistic terms of exploitation – of wealth, status, and
legitimacy taking advantage of social, economic, and perhaps legal vulnerability.
Clearly, power can be abused in many subtle ways, some of which may even be well intentioned. But Lutz shows that roles are not immutable, and are also nuanced by issues such as guilt, blame, discomfort, and dependency as well as by agency and negotiation – and sometimes by generosity, solidarity, and affection. The migrant may be doing menial work in order to finance her own or her children’s studies. The employer may feel awkward about exercising authority and overcompensate by not setting clear boundaries in the relationship, either being overfriendly or persistently overstepping those that have been set. For example, one mother projects her own mixed feelings about paying a younger woman (herself a mother) to look after her daughter by constantly phoning the ‘baby-minder’ to check up on her. Although her self-image is of having ‘a relaxed and easy-going personality and parenting style’ (p. 64), she believes that her views on child care should prevail if she is paying someone to take her place – she is rattled by the childminder keeping an eye on the baby while flicking through a magazine, for instance, because the child should command her full attention.

One suspects that the real issue is that having to ‘outsource’ part of her maternal role makes her feel that she is in some way failing as a mother – emotionally, she needs to assert her moral superiority. The childminder, in turn, is expected to suppress her own parenting skills because her foreign ways are presented as inferior or retrograde.

This example goes to the heart of the nature of domestic work, which is about how
boundaries are demarcated and how relationships are negotiated. The employee is
entering the employer’s intimate space, which calls for considerable navigational skills.  There is no standard job description for dealing with other people’s dirt and mess. Some people expect their home to shine like a new pin in three hours, others imagine that cleaning can be done without so much as moving a piece of paper.

As one worker, a Czech man, puts it: ‘And – hmm, at first, I always felt I had to put the flat in order, or something. Now just ignore it. I know they’re satisfied if I clean the important things: the stove, the bathtub, the toilet and the floor. I vacuum around everything – and that’s it’ (p. 50). Some employers give the cleaner the key and leave it to her to sort out her routine, while others actually follow her around and dictate exactly how everything should be done – one woman insists that she ‘should clean the floor by shuffling around on her knees, wearing towelling pads which she has first to attach around her knees with safety pins’ (p. 107). Another keeps shifting the boundaries by adding chores to be completed in the same amount of time (and, of course, for the same amount of money – the equivalent of speeding up the factory conveyor-belt).

Lutz makes the point that since most domestic workers are women and are ‘managed’ by women, gender identities are not challenged – but that gender asymmetries are ‘attenuated or amplified by the forms in with other markers of social position are negotiated’ (p. 29), namely class and ethnicity. So an employer may confide in her cleaner at the level of gender roles – but, unlike a friendship between equals, there is no expectation that this ‘emotional work’ (p. 187) will ever be reciprocated. She underlines that bringing paid work into the domestic sphere breaks down ‘a distinct separation, either between private and public, or between productive and reproductive work’ (p. 189), and that this introduces new paradoxes. The migrant worker enables her employer to engage in gainful employment, but also changes the way in which her employer ‘does gender’, since ‘she has to share it with another woman’ (p. 189).

Handling these tensions is what Helma Lutz calls ‘boundary work’, and indeed it
calls for advanced negotiation skills of the kind demonstrated by one of the women she interviews, a former political refugee: ‘She has worked out a strategy for avoiding the role diffusion inherent in the work and tries to establish clarity. Right from the start, she makes an effort to define boundaries, to anticipate potential sources of conflict, to name the individual areas of work and to negotiate over them. Her intention is to create a zone of freedom, within which she has relative autonomy’ (p. 72).

Helma Lutz situates her wealth of fascinating interview material within an
analytical framework that goes well beyond a rigid dichotomy between those who
pay for domestic services and those who provide them, because ‘antagonisms emerge on every level which cannot be resolved with moral appeals’ (p. 194). It is not the author’s aim to apportion blame or to offer universal solutions, but to pose important questions about the care economy in a sympathetic and thought-provoking manner.

As a final note, after the author had completed her research, the International
Labour Organization (ILO) Convention on Domestic Workers (2011) was overwhelmingly adopted. Among other things, it states that domestic workers should be guaranteed the minimum wage and a clear, preferably written, statement of employment conditions. The UK delegation abstained. By contrast, the first country to ratify it was Uruguay.

Review ©2012 Deborah Eade, writer and editor, Monnetier-Mornex, France

The New Maids: Transnational Women and the Care Economy is published by Zed Books

Review originally published in Gender & Development 20.3 (2012)