ALICIA WALLACE: It’s work and it doesn’t matter who is doing it

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Alicia Wallace

LAST week, I observed an online conversation about the suitability of migrant and Bahamian workers for domestic work. Someone was looking for a domestic worker and specifically noted they were not interested in a Bahamian employee and listed specific characteristics they did not want.

Some people were obviously offended by the specifications and the prejudices they revealed. In the comments on the second post, most people came to the defence of the poster, saying she was correct in her assertions about specific types of people, namely Bahamians.

I found the entire conversation both upsetting and indicative of a longstanding issue: Bahamians are uninterested in hiring Bahamians because they see them as uncontrollable and Bahamians continue to undervalue domestic work.

The argument being made in the post and the comments was that Bahamians are not well-suited to domestic work. Apparently, we are too lazy, too entitled and too highly groomed. According to them – also Bahamians – we are too disrespectful. Bahamians, it would appear, demand too much money. We also work too slow or too fast. It is better, then, to hire a migrant worker.

Migrant workers are more humble. They appreciate the low pay. They call their employers by title and last name. They do not complain. They know their place. Migrant workers know they are beneath the rest of us and, because of that, they are better suited to work for Bahamians who want to be reminded of their perceived status.

In praise of housekeepers they’d had before, people shared anecdotes that centred specific characteristics and behaviours. She wore a uniform. She called us Mr. and Mrs. She took care of us, then took care of our children. She called us on our birthdays for years.

These employers are not satisfied with respect. They want complete deference. They want, not only to feel superior, but for their employees to feel and behave as though they are inferior to the employer. The employer thinks they are doing the employee a favour rather than engaging in a transaction in which money is exchanged for a service. In their minds, the domestic service includes an ego boost. Employees are expected to make themselves small and childlike, express gratitude and count themselves lucky to have the opportunity to serve.

Someone said: “Gone are the days when Bahamian housekeepers were proud of their work and became a part of the family.”

We like to think of ourselves of benevolent. Look at us, being so good to domestic workers! We give the landscaper a cup of water on a sweltering day and the housekeeper can eat some of the food she prepares for us. This is, oddly and embarrassingly, seen as a great kindness. On the other side, some domestic workers are made to believe they are family-adjacent. This can be a form of manipulation, leading employees to develop a sense of responsibility for the employers that is not consistent with their duties or compensation. The same phenomenon exists in many small businesses and nongovernmental organizations that blur the lines between colleagues and friends, co-workers and families, duties and favours. When employers start referring to employees as family, it is a red flag.

We do not talk about it often, but there needs to be more attention on domestic work and the issues facing domestic workers. Domestic work is severely underpaid. The standard pay seems to be in the area of $250 per week for a housekeeper who is responsible for more than just cleaning. They are often expected to cook and take care of children. On occasion, they must supervise other household activities like the repair of appliances or renovations. Some are expected to do the grocery shopping and help children with homework. Many employers believe that, because they are paying a worker for a day or week of work, they are entitled to fill that time with any tasks of their choosing. It is easier to get away with this when the employee is vulnerable, and migrant workers—not to be confused with those we call “expats” — are typically more vulnerable than Bahamians.

Work within the home has long been considered women’s work. It is also viewed as unskilled labour. Both of these (incorrect) assumptions have resulted in the low rate of pay for domestic workers. There is a need to properly assess the value of domestic work as it is directly related to economic production. Without household tasks being completed, people would not be able to work. We need to eat and wear clean clothes every day in order to participate in the economy. If people are not paid to do the domestic work that supports our economic production, some of us — usually women — have to work a second shift. That domestic labour, then, is unpaid.

Because we have failed to assess and communicate the value of cleaning, cooking, laundering clothing and caregiving, domestic work is seen to have no value when it is done by someone living in the home and low value when it is done by someone from outside of the home who must be paid.

Due to the nature of domestic work and compensation in The Bahamas, it is generally not a first choice for Bahamians. This has less to do with laziness and more to do with the unrealistic expectations of employers which have been shaped by the plight of economic migrants and decades of experience in subjugating vulnerable people. We now have a warped understanding of domestic work, the domestic worker, and the relationships between the work, the worker, and the employer. Yard work and housework when not undertaken by the homeowner are looked down upon, not because the work itself is dishonourable, but because it is associated with a certain type of treatment, rate of pay, and standard of living.

For many Bahamians, to accept domestic work is an exercise in humility. To wear a uniform, to “Yes, Mrs So-and-so,” and “No, Mr So-an-so,” and to go about their work with as much attention to detail as possible without appearing too interested in someone else’s belongings is to inhabit a reality much different from the one we are taught to expect. Yes, many Bahamians do the same in hotels, but it is a very different environment. It is much easier to suspend personhood at a particular site for the benefit of people you will never see again, like a part in a play, than to be that robot every day in the same home with the same people who are like you, but refuse to see it.

It is fascinating to see the ease with which people admit that they want to be seen and treated as better than others. They want to be in charge of someone else, and for that person to acknowledge the difference in their positions. They want to reserve the right to deem a person (they consider beneath them) worthy of greater proximity to them, able to attend birthday parties and holiday dinners. More than domestic help, many Bahamians are looking for power and control.

Can we say we need to stop migrants from entering the country while complaining Bahamians are not good enough to work in our homes? Many are quick to say there are too many migrant people here and not enough jobs for Bahamians, but it is obviously far more complicated than that.

There is nothing wrong with migration or migrant workers. There is nothing wrong with domestic work. The issue is the way we value certain kinds of work and the people doing it.

Taking your mind off things

1. Frankie Drake Mysteries. This Canadian television show, pictured, about a “lady detective” is billed as drama, but it’s very light and easy to watch (or not watch if that’s your thing). It is just the sort of show to turn on while doing the laundry or clearing out your email inbox. Set in 1920s Toronto, it includes pop-ups from historical figures including Ernest Hemingway and Marcus Garvey. Not without its issues, it is definitely a show to spark conversation.

2. Terrible, Thanks for Asking. This podcast by Nora McInerny is all about the complications of grief. Each episode is the story of one person’s loss and how they get, not over it, but beyond it. It is well written and edited, so it doesn’t even feel like an hour of sadness. Each story brings fresh perspective, hope, and a new beginning.

3. Re-reading a favourite book. At the end of 2020, all I wanted was a form of entertainment that was easy. After looking at the options, I realized I wanted something fairly familiar, so I decided to reread a book I enjoyed in 2019 and watch a few episodes of television shows I enjoyed years ago. It was a great way to enjoy something without too much investment. Many of us are (nearly) tapped out emotionally and mentally, and a visit to something known and loved may just be the thing.

4. Turn off notifications. If you don’t need to know every time an email lands in your inbox, turn off the notification. If your Class of 1995 WhatsApp group is active at all hours of the day, mute it. Give yourself some space. Stop your phone from demanding your attention every 15 minutes.