Domesticity is the foundation of the ability of the super-rich to ensure their social and economic reproduction. By delegating domestic and parental tasks, they can devote themselves fully to their work, leisure and rest.
But how do they manage to find people willing to serve them daily?
I answer this question in a recent article written from my research about full-time domesticity of multi-millionaires. Far from being an obsolete job, far from the clichés that reduce it to slavery, domesticity of the ultra-rich is based on ambivalent social relations of “golden exploitation”. What is it about?
When domestics start serving multi-millionaires for the first time, they feel like they are in heaven. They have a good reason for that: they are fed, laundered, and housed in huge villas, mansions, and sumptuous castles. Their bosses, who occupy the highest professional positions—traders, bankers, business lawyers, art dealers, doctors who own clinics, CEOs…—do not hesitate to pay for their medical expenses, and to shower them with gifts: cookies and chocolates from renowned caterers, but above all, Vuitton bags, Rolex watches, clothes from prestigious designers, statuettes from Jeff Koons, or even a collector’s car.
The generosity of the super-rich does not stop at these in-kind rewards: domestics can expect substantial salaries. Of course, for some of them, gifts supplement and justify a very low salary. But the reality for a majority of domestics I met is different: $2,000, $3,000, $4,000, and $5,000 a month are common salaries. And sometimes they can be much higher: some butlers and governesses can earn up to a little over $10,000 a month, excluding bonuses.
These material benefits, as well as the pride of serving people at the top of the social hierarchy, make domestic work very attractive. In the big wealthy houses, I met domestics with very diverse characteristics and biographical trajectories: women and men, white and racialized people, people from the working and middle classes, with or without diplomas, single or married, with or without children, coming from luxury hotels, tourism, childcare, catering, or even part-time domestic services. Serving the super-rich thus attracts lot of people: domestics working together on a daily basis in a house are far from forming a homogeneous social group, but all of them work in a golden world.
A limitless investment in work
However, behind the gilding lies unlimited work. In the field, I was struck by the physical and psychological tiredness of domestics who had very little time to rest. Cooks and gardeners carry a lot of weight, nannies run around, butlers and housekeepers have a considerable mental load, housekeepers are constantly bending down, and during the moments of least agitation, they remain waiting for an order, without being able to fully rest.
And then, sleeping at their job place allows their bosses to call on them at night: at any time, domestics can be called to charter a jet, prepare luggage or early breakfasts, clean up sick children’s vomit, drive Mr. to the emergency room, come and chat with Mrs. during her insomnia. Potentially, their work is unlimited. They have days off – Sundays, and a few weeks of vacation – but these days off are regularly taken away, rarely rescheduled, when the domestics’ bosses want to throw a party.
Earning $5,000 or $6,000 a month, some domestics are among the richest 10% of the world. But in fact, this salary decreases dramatically when compared to the number of hours they actually worked. And, as surprising as it may seem, many domestics don’t have time to spend their money: domestics from immigrant families send it to their families, and others hope to save enough to invest. But if they leave their jobs, domestics have no place to live: within a few months, the money they saved goes up in smoke. The generosity of multi-millionaires paradoxically maintains a form of economic dependence among the people serving them.
Differentiated compensation for dedication
Domestics told me repeatedly: they are not to be pitied. They work hard but find an economic and emotional interest in working for bosses who sometimes become their only family. I have met some who could indeed climb the ladder of the domesticity hierarchy: from handyman to butler, from $2,000 to $10,000, investing, after years spent serving several billionaires, in a beautiful apartment in Paris or New York.
But this social and professional mobility is not given to everyone. In fact, according to a logic of rationalization of their expenses, the super-rich do not compensate in the same way their domestics dedicate to their work. The more supervisory the domestics are in the hierarchy of domesticity, the higher their salary.
But, more important than this place in the hierarchy are the class, gender, and racial characteristics of the domestics. Women and racialized domestics consistently earn less than men and white domestics, even for the same job position. In other words, the super-rich compensate more for the dedication to work of domestics who look like them, and whom they feel less legitimate to put work for them.
In my interviews, the multi-millionaires define themselves as “good bosses” who give work to those who, elsewhere in the labor market, would be subject to multiple discriminations. They are right: domestics themselves said that they would not have found better work elsewhere. Moreover, if labor law is almost absent from the houses, it is because the bosses and the domestics agree together to circumvent it in favor of flexibility in their labor relations.
Everyone seems to find it profitable to maintain the social order, and the gendered and racialized hierarchies that make it up. In most of the homes of the super-rich, the exploitation of the domestics is golden, so much so that the latter derive as much recognition as suffering from it.
The internal turnover is indicative of this ambivalence: the career of the domestics is based on a regular change of employers, every 3 or 4 years. Leaving often to stay longer: this is the rule of the game for those who want to be close to the money. A rule that remains despite everything, and above all, defined by the rich, by defining the barriers to entry into their universe.
Alizée Delpierre. “The price of ‘golden’ exploitation: How money flows from the super-rich to domestic workers support inequalities” in Socio-Economic Review 2022.
image: cottonbro studio via pexels