Cleaning lady: a job like any other?
On Women’s Day this year, which seems a million years ago now, a time when we were all suddenly realizing that just because hysterical hypochondriacs thought they probably had COVID-19 didn’t automatically mean it wasn’t actually really fucking terrible (God, what a horrible realization that was!), the UK Guardian published a feminist article by Sally Howard, entitled, somewhat melodramatically, I thought: “Is it ever acceptable to hire a cleaner?”
“The day my cleaner used to visit,” the article begins, “I would return home in the evening to the smell of Dettol mixed with Tania’s sweat, to a clean kitchen and a drenching sense of guilt.”
It’s a white woman thing, a bit, feeling guilty about paying for a cleaner, I think. I’ve never felt this guilt – it’s a guilt I’ve never shared. Even when my cleaner came from Bangladesh, I just told her about how my dad spoke Bengali with a British accent, and didn’t feel overly guilty. Shame yes – shame at being such a terrible housewife, shame at letting someone come inside your home and see your dirt, shame at failing – guilt, no. But to be honest, I’m not an overly guilty kind of person!
White feminists feel a lot of guilt about paying for professional help to clean their private homes. It’s something that unites white feminists and white sexists, actually, interestingly enough.
In the book I just published with Nautilus, Die Schlechteste Hausfrau der Welt, my friend, nicknamed Pegida-Kevin, (as you can tell from his nickname, he’s not exactly the most woke guy on Earth!) accuses my friend Zandra, who considers herself a feminist, albeit a bad one, of hypocrisy and general rubbishness, for paying a cleaner from Poland fifteen euros an hour “under the table” to come and clean her flat for her.
“’You disgust me!”’ Pegida-Kevin says, loudly, angrily – and sarcastically. ‘White men are all rapists – but this poor woman from Poland should come and clean for you for just fifteen euros an hour!’”
Zandra doesn’t even understand the argument because she herself earns only twelve euros an hour. But there are a lot of rich, white women who earn more than Zandra – and pay their cleaners less than her. Some of these women call themselves feminists, some even think they are good feminists! Are they hypocrites? Is what they are doing unacceptable?
I think it’s super-interesting, this argument. Is it ever acceptable to hire a cleaner, Sally Howard asked in the Guardian on Women’s Day. Well, yes, it certainly is. Nobody has feminist dilemmas about paying people to clean our nursery schools, our schools, our hospitals, our streets. Our public parks get cleaned. My little brother used to clean ambulances for a living. How come people can clean public spaces without bringing feminism into it – but as soon as it is the private sphere, it suddenly becomes this great feminist betrayal?
People say – well, white people say, mainly, it is a white thing – that paying for a cleaner is “outsourcing” your feminism. But why is it not a feminist issue that we all pay – through taxes, and I think, Betriebskosten – to get our rubbish taken from our house to the Mülldepot? Paying someone to take your rubbish down to the collective rubbish bins is some kind of feminist failure – but paying people to drive your trash from your collective bin area to the public waste site is okay? What happens to that rubbish on its journey from the kitchen to the public bin area? Why does it suddenly lose its association with feminism, or femininity?
The only reason it is a feminist issue to pay for a cleaner inside your house, but not a feminist issue to pay a gardener outside the house, is because many people, including feminists, still see the dirt that is created inside the house as women’s responsibility. It is, essentially, an anti-feminist argument.
It’s true that cleaners – cleaning ladies and also, the less common cleaning men – are underpaid and overexploited. I actually think, and I’m not sure if I should be admitting this here, that it is fairer and more moral to pay your cleaning lady “Schwarz” than through Helpling. But I find it interesting that cleaning is the only job left in the Western society where people have these kind of qualms? Many people pay a babysitter Schwarz as often as once a fortnight or even twice a week. Nobody would think for a SECOND that you were robbing this person of their pension!?! And, while we are on the subject of pensions – Lieferando delivery drivers, TEFL teachers and socialist columnists are also fucked over 1750% when it comes to pensions, so maybe, instead of bringing feminism into it, we should be talking about socialism instead? Because I am not saying that capitalism doesn’t suck or poverty doesn’t exist here. What I am saying is that this is not a feminist issue!
And the thing I find most interesting is the idea that this work is so demeaning AND so disgusting that nobody can ever choose to do it. As with sex work, people talk about cleaning as if the thing you are being paid to do it so disgusting, you are just being paid to do what nobody else wants to do – there is no skill involved at all. Other people don’t want to suck dick/clean toilets, you are so poor and desperate you have no choice but to do it. Whereas some white feminists want to ban paid sex work, most people just think you should feel guilty about paying for a cleaner.
But here’s the thing: maybe it is because I am truly, truly, truly HORRENDOUSLY HORRIFICALLY frighteningly amazingly bad at cleaning – but I really do think it is a skilled job. If it wasn’t a skilled job, how could there be so many YouTube tutorials on how to descale your kettle? I think it’s a skilled job, and I think there must be moments when it is disgusting, but there must be moments when being a HNO doctor, a nursery school teacher or even a carer are disgusting too. As far as I am concerned, the yuckiness is not the point. A good cleaner is a skilled worker – and some cleaners are actually total fucking artists, that’s what. We should respect this job – not just as a job like any other, but a hard job. And we should pay cleaners our respect - and decent amounts of money, too.
When we talk about women revealing to the world that their partner, their ex-partner, (and it’s invariably cis-men is who I am talking about here), raped or hit them, we talk about them airing their dirty laundry in public. In both German and English we use this expression. I think perhaps it comes from times when men would hit women so hard they would bleed – or maybe even they would rape them so violently they would bleed. Some women would just wash these blood-stained sheets in public, at the river or the well maybe, and not try to hide away the stains which revealed the violence going on inside the house. And I can’t help feeling that some of our disgust about getting outside help with cleaning - paid, professional outside help, inside the privacy of our own home – this isn’t all to do with the poo stains on your toilet lid or the blood stains on your mattress or the dusty magazines under your bed. This is to do with male power over women. A man should be the king of his castle, and a woman should be his unpaid slave. And dirt, and the act of cleaning it up, should be unseen – and unpaid. I think this idea of the domestic becoming public, the inside turned outside, the man usurped as “owner” of the woman’s body, is the true reason why people find the idea of paying for someone to clean your bathroom disgusting and gross.
Let’s smash the patriarchy and capitalism at the same time! Tell our lazy cis-male partners to go fuck themselves, pay our cleaning ladies a decent wage for good, hard work and not confuse anti-feminist ideas with feminist ones.
Jacinta's new book Die Schlechteste Hausfrau der Welt is now available in most good book stores (and several bad ones)