Cross posted

New Zealand Labour Day, 2010

Yesterday, Madame Grémont, the cleaning lady, brought Maman a bouquet of roses. … OK, I won’t go into the fact that Madame Grémont gives roses to Maman. They have the same relationship that all progressive middle-class women have with their cleaning ladies, although Maman thinks she really is the exception: a good old rose-coloured paternalistic relationship (we offer her coffee, pay her decently, never scold, pass on old clothes and broken furniture, and show an interest in her children, and in return she brings us roses and brown and beige crocheted bedspreads).

From The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery, translated by Alison Anderson, Paris: Gallic, 2006 (trans. 2008).

From time to time when we have both been working full time, or near full time, we have employed cleaners, and we have always paid them decently, ensured they have paid tea breaks, asked them to do a springclean instead of a regular clean if we are going to be away (even if we don’t need the house cleaned, the cleaner still needs her wages), tried to treat them respectfully as people who are providing a much needed service for us. Plus I have always insisted that they not clean the toilets: we can clean up our own sh*t.

Even so, this paragraph from this excellent novel hit home. All the same, I wonder what the alternative is? Should I treat people who come into my home to clean with less respect than say, tradies who come in to fix taps and drains and electrical connections and the like?

I don’t think so. I think the answer is to remember that cleaners and other workers are entitled to the full protection of the law. The quality of their employment is not dependent on an employer’s fancies, but on the conditions that have been fought for by unions, and enshrined in law. And decent employers should comply with those conditions, not because they fear the might of the law, but because they are the minimally decent way to behave with respect to other human beings.


10 responses to “Ouch!

  1. I have been through so many incarnations of cleaners, from someone I got through the paper (who worked for my late partner and I for years), through a company who employed women in a fairly amateur way, and now to a commercial cleaning company. Which I prefer, in the end, because it is strictly business. My middle period, with the company who employed women, was the worst. They were cheap but didn’t pay the women enough, the women were often incompetent – one locked herself out of the house twice and I had to come home from work to let her back in! – and they encouraged us to form a kind of relationship with the women which I felt crossed boundaries.

    Paying more to a reputable company has worked out best for me.

  2. I let mine go when I realised that I was paying for an hour and a half and getting a pretty shoddy 45 minutes. She wished me good luck in finding someone to clean the whole house for me. I mentally wished her good luck in finding someone to pay her $50 an hour and did it myself. The husband also does more too, which has actually solved the problem that we got the cleaner in to solve in the first place. But it was nice, in the beginning, to come home to a house that was vacummed and washed floors. It doesn’t happen that often anymore.

  3. The problem isn’t that they deserve better protection under the law. This is only a symptom. The problem is that there is an inequality in the price of labour. Not necessarily extreme, in your case, but it exists nonetheless. To use the language of economics, their labour is underpriced, and that of those who can afford it is overpriced, often dramatically. I was reminded of Giovanni’s argument that all should be paid $50,000, except for dentists and garbage collectors. People assume he’s joking, it sounds so ridiculous to them.

    I had the experience of using a domestic servant recently, for the first time in my life. She was a live in domestic in the house of a Jakarta friend, along with her husband the driver. It is likely they treated her well, but the relationship is fundamentally an unequal one. Until she, and the rest of her working class, has enough power in society to demand a decent wage, this middle class family will be able to afford her services.

  4. Being treated with respect goes a long way for anyone in any profession! It doesn’t necessarily make us bourgeois. I think any one who works in the inner sanctum of the home deserves to be looked after a little (provided that they do give a quality service).

  5. Pingback: Some things to think about while you hang out the washing « blue milk

  6. One of the reasons we don’t have a cleaner right now is how stark these contradictions are here in our corner of Argentina. Nannies and cleaners (and fixers and builders) get paid next to nothing – I don’t know how they do it, but it sustains the extreme differences between social classes. And paying significantly more for their labour also creates conflicts and sets up an even more elitist/entitlement dynamic in a small town where everyone knows everything.

    So far, I haven’t been able to figure out a good way to deal with it all, so I haven’t done anything at all, which doesn’t really help anyone either.

  7. We also have cleaners and I’ve never had any concern about the relationship. I pay them as independent contractors and expect them to be professional, just like the man who mows our lawns. It is not a housekeeper or servant type arrangement, it is just like the electrician or plumber job, as you suggest.

  8. I’ve had cleaners/housekeepers for 30 years, and they usually set their own rates and hours, unless you are using a professional company or paying a Student Job Search rate. Independent contractors, as Tamara says. Often insisting on being paid in cash, which is between them, their conscience and their tax accountant. I don’t think the law gets much of a look-in there, Deborah!

    It’s been a mixed experience – some are worth more, many are worth less; some become personal friends and stay in touch when their cleaning days are done, others give you substandard service, break your belongings and steal from you.

    I’ve never given excess clothes to anyone except charities, but as for unwanted furniture, cleaners are in the loop along with family and friends as we operate a giant recycling circle.

    My current cleaner, a cheerful whirling dervish who achieves a lot in the two hours she allots each of her clients, brings me bags of homegrown lemons in return for some jars of the lemon curd I make from them. Everybody’s happy (except me when her speed leaves behind scars on the woodwork….). She’s a professional cleaner who’s been at it for years and knows the ropes, and I’m glad to have her for as long as she can stand it.

    She also told me how to vote in the local council elections, as I am fairly new to the district – “So-and-so is away with the pixies. That one drinks. That blonde woman is basically stupid. That bloke is hand in glove with the developers…” and so on. Very entertaining, and not in the least servant-like!

  9. My parents ran a cleaning business for most of my father’s adult life. My father had a real talent for cleaning – he was efficient, effective and just plain good at it. My parents’ did all sorts of cleaning – domestic, commercial and industrial. As a result, I think of it as a skill that has a price like any other. I have a cleaner at the moment, she sets her rates, and she can get through quite a lot more in the time she’s here than I could. She’s better at it than me.

    I agree that there are fundamental issues in terms of how different skills are valued, which is why I don’t think twice about whether the tax man knows about her cleaning income. Government policy has led, in part, to the low value of her skills, and I don’t think she owes them much as a result.

    At one point in my family’s life, while my parents was cleaning up other people’s sh*t, they were also paying a nanny to help with the kids. So I think it depends very much on the way both parties view the relationship – for me it’s a business arrangement like any other. If there is any element of “servant” in the way someone thinks of a cleaner, that’s a very different ball game.

  10. My former cleaner worked for herself and set her own rates. Unfortunately after a while her work didn’t stack up to the cost and when I knew for sure that she was leaving early I let her go.