Race, class, gender and paid domestic work in London

  • Rosie Cox

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    Paid domestic labour involves tens of thousands of people in Britain today. Studies of domestic workers in other parts of the world have highlighted the importance of the sector to female employment. These studies have revealed that paid domestic work is influenced by the interaction of race, class and gender inequalities. This study examined the combined impact of these hierarchies on the domestic labour sector in London.

    The aim of the study was to investigate how class, gender and ethnicity shape paid domestic work in London and to examine whether paid domestic employment in London challenges or reinforces these inequalities. Two stages of research were used
    to achieve this aim. First, an extensive survey of demand within the entire London area was carried out to identify the scale of the sector, its distribution and the type of work involved. The second stage comprised in-depth interviews with a small number of domestic employers and employees. At this stage the detailed workings of the domestic labour market and the employer/employee relationship were investigated.
    London was used as a study area because it was known to have the highest rates of domestic employment in England. It also has a wide range of different types of domestic employment and an ethnically diverse population.

    The first stage of research revealed that domestic employment is unevenly distributed around London. It is concentrated in established, wealthy areas and not particularly in places with high rates of female employment. A wide range of domestic employment exists and these different jobs are done by people of different ages, genders and nationalities. The domestic labour market in London is segmented along these lines with little movement of people between types of job.

    The recruitment processes used by employers, and the methods used by domestic workers to find jobs, reiterated the ghettoisation of particular groups. Employers sought employees of the same nationality as those they had had in the past and domestic workers used informal networks of family and friends to find work.
    Assumptions about gender roles facilitated women's entry into paid domestic work as it was assumed they knew how to carry out household tasks.

    Social inequalities permeate the relationship between domestic worker and employer. The relationship has a contradictory nature. It has elements of affectivity that come from the close contact between employer and employee, but it also has elements of
    distance. This distance can take various shapes. Au pairs were denigrated in terms of their age and were infantilised by their employers' rules and behaviour. Cleaners' ethnicity was more often focused on by employers. Shortcomings, such as poor language skills, would be pointed out by employers to differentiate themselves from cleaners.

    Paid domestic labour does not challenge existing social inequalities. Shifting the burden of reproductive labour to people outside the household does not challenge assumptions about responsibility for that work. Female domestic workers are carrying out the tasks that women have done for generations. The ghettoisation of particular ethnic groups within the sector prevents these people accessing wider labour markets and reinforces the idea that certain ethnicities 'belong' in certain types of work. Domestic workers are often isolated, working alone, or perhaps alongside their employers or one other employee. Their isolation and their intimate relationship with employers restrict their ability to challenge assumptions or improve pay and conditions.

    Domestic workers in Britain have long been neglected in the academic literature but they are a group that deserve attention. Not only is the sector increasing but also, close examination of the sector can reveal the workings of social structures within everyday life.
    Date of Award1998
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • Coventry University

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