To many Americans, the term “domestic servant” conjures up images of other places and other times. Maybe it is Downton Abbey. Or maybe it is a Latin American country. Or if we do think about the United States, we think about a time long in the past.
But contrary to popular perceptions, domestic service is very much a part of the contemporary American landscape, and is in fact on the rise for the first time in over one hundred years.
What explains this twenty-first century resurgence of an occupation that sociologist Lewis Coser declared obsolete in 1973? The short answer: inequality.
In its twenty-first century incarnation we no longer use the term “servant.” But research has shown that workers who are employed by a single private household – whether as nannies, cleaners, home health aides, or personal care attendants – share many of the same vulnerabilities as those called servants in an earlier era.
Let’s start by looking at some numbers. In a recent study, I found that in 2015 domestic workers made up just over one percent of the female labor force in the United States. This may not seem like a large number compared to the early twentieth century, when more than 25 percent of women in the labor force worked in domestic service. However, there are several important contextual factors that should make us look again.
First, in an economy where women are much more widely distributed among occupations, these numbers are significant. In 2010, the three occupations where women were the most concentrated were secretaries and administrative assistants, elementary and middle school teachers, and registered nurses. These jobs made up 5 percent, 3.8 percent, and 3.5 percent of the female labor force.
In this context, rates of more than one percent are meaningful. Even more notable, in a number of the nation’s largest cities rates of domestic work have increased to over 2 percent, and in Miami, 3.9 percent of women in the labor force are domestic workers.
Second, these numbers represent the first increases in rates of domestic work in over one hundred years. Through the entirety of the twentieth century, rates and absolute numbers of domestic workers were in precipitous decline. Then between 2000 and 2015 the absolute number of domestic workers across the country grew by fifty percent. And rates of domestic work grew in sixty of the largest 100 metropolitan areas in the country.
So why is this “obsolete” occupation on the rise again? Is it because women are entering the labor force? Is it because the aging of the population is raising demand for in-home elder care workers? My research comparing US cities – perhaps surprisingly – finds that measures of maternal and female labor force participation and measures of numbers of dependents are not correlated with high levels of domestic work.
By contrast – the things that are correlated with high levels of domestic work are all related to inequality. Cities with high levels of income polarization have higher rates of domestic work. Cities with higher populations of Black and Hispanic women have higher rates of domestic work. And cities with higher proportions of immigrant women have higher rates of domestic service. Simply put, domestic work is an occupation that depends on inequality for its very existence.
In the United States and in other countries in the Global North that are experiencing similar resurgences of domestic work, the urgency to create policy to protect and support these very vulnerable workers is clear. The landmark 2011 International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 189 calling for national governments to regulate the terms and conditions of work for domestic workers argues that although domestic work should be recognized as “work like any other” it should at the same time be acknowledged as “work like no other”.
A large body of research has documented that workers whose place of employment is in a private household are uniquely vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and harassment. Personalized and often non-codified employment relationships, diffuse and unclear boundaries around work expectations, and a high degree of employer control create an environment ripe for work expansion and limited voice.
The disproportionate representation of women of color and immigrant women among domestic workers exacerbates these vulnerabilities, and it has been documented that among domestic workers, immigrant women and women of color are more likely to experience racism and discrimination, isolation, wage theft, surveillance, and abuse.
Finally, in the United States, as in many other countries around the world, domestic workers have been systematically excluded from laws governing workplace health and safety, minimum wages, protection from discrimination, unionization rights, health coverage, and pension programs.
We in the United States must recognize that this is not a policy issue of the past or one that applies only to other countries. The National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) is part of a global movement of domestic workers advocating for policies that advance the rights and protections of this again growing group of workers.
Domestic work is inextricably linked to inequalities of class, gender, race, and migration. As these jobs are expanding, putting into place policies to mitigate worker vulnerability is critical to making these good jobs for the future rather than a regression to a relic of the past.
Mignon Duffy. “Driven by inequalities: exploring the resurgence of domestic work in US cities” in Sociological Forum 2020.
Image: IDWF via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)