Sunday, April 3, 2011

Outsourcing of Domestic Work and the Increase of Class Oppression

The occupations of seamstress, prostitute, cook, nanny, and maid have been around forever - sometimes under other names, such as servant or slave, but the tasks have been the same. For centuries, wealthy people have been able to hire people to do things traditionally assigned to wives and daughters, allowing those wealthy women time and a little freedom to pursue their own whims. Since the beginning of feminism, as women have left the constraints of the home in pursuit of non-domestic tasks, someone else had to take up those tasks, and domestic and sex work became more common - but no less oppressed.

Nowadays, while having clothing custom made is reserved for the very wealthy, almost all of us buy our own clothes. This is common across social classes, and the people who do make their own clothes do it for religious reasons, or do it because the market does not offer the kind of clothing they desire. Sadly, this has a direct relation to the existence of sweatshop workers. As the demand for cheap, mass produced clothing has increased, so has the functionality of sweatshops, both overseas in impoverished countries and in the southern United States where migrant women slave away in the same conditions as the little girls in China, and have the same low level of political power. Notice that these sweatshop workers are also women - who better to take up the tasks that would be done by the women buying these clothes for their families?

The same goes for maids. Again, the ability to hire a maid is now held by many middle class women who require help with the cleaning because of the demands of their jobs. Again, these jobs are held by women in the lower class, and often immigrant women in many parts of the country, who as Barbara Ehrenreich highlighted in her book "Nickel and Dimed," these domestic workers are not making living wages. It's a fact that women are more likely than men to live in poverty, because they are less likely to be given living wages. Blue collar jobs are held by both genders - while women may dominate the realm of domestic work, men occupy the realm of construction and factory work. However, men's work is still valued over women's work - it's only been little over half a century since most women cooked and cleaned and sewed for free, so some may wonder, why should that suddenly warrant a high wage? Besides, people still have this idea that men are the only workers with families to feed, while women don't need a living wage because they're depending on a man's wage and are only working for supplemental income or "pin money."

When people go out to eat, they are going somewhere where someone else will cook for them - something originally designated for women in the domestic sphere. When people go shopping, they are buying clothes, soaps, and other things that used to be made in the home. This ability to buy products rather than labor to make them may be liberating for women, giving them more time and fewer domestic responsibilities, it means there are now more cooks, chefs, waiters, and retail workers working in those roles. It may have expanded the job market, but the jobs provided are "low" jobs - jobs with little pay that require a lot of emotional labor and dealing with entitled customers who often oppress the workers as much as the corporations that employ those workers. Make no mistake, they may have better conditions and paychecks than those in sweatshops, but there is still a lot of room for improvement.

Keep in mind that the people who do serve others by doing feminine work typically go home and do the same things they did at work. They can't always afford to buy the clothes they make, or eat the food they prepare and/or serve. They can't afford to hire maids. So they go home after all that underpaid physical labor and do the same things for their own families. They do more domestic work so that some women can do less, or none at all - so that those women can, in turn, pursue their own passions and their own career goals.

Prostitutes also factor into this. Once again, they perform the work of a man's romantic or sexual partner - wife, girlfriend, fuckbuddy, whatever - but their work is commodified and they are oppressed as well. If a woman works for a pimp, she of often beaten and forced to have sex with clients she does not choose or get to negotiate with, and her earnings are taken from her in full or in part. If a woman works in a brothel, she is locked away from society, paraded in front of clients who choose who to sex up, and has to fork over more than half her earnings to the brothel owners. Freelance prostitutes constantly face the threat of rape (and you can't "rape" a prostitute, it's only considered theft of services, because her oversexualized status makes her body a full-time commodity with sub-human status in the eyes of many people), murder, pregnancy, and STDs - because when an industry is criminal, there are no universal, enforceable standards placed upon it. Many men who solicit prostitutes are married or have romantic partners, but they are not satisfied, and seek that satisfaction from women who, in their eyes, exist purely for that purpose.

Keep in mind that prostitutes are either forced into "the life," or they choose it out of desperation. No high school girl says "when I grow up, I wanna fuck people for money." Well maybe some do, but I'm guessing it's pretty rare.

Notice how men are still largely absent from these tasks, whether they're in the home or done as a service to others. Men still only control the means of production, for the most part. Even households that start off with the intent of being egalitarian in terms of housework usually see the tasks slowly shift to the woman of the house. These are the men who say "nah, I don't want to help you with the work, hire a maid instead," and these are the men who drive to male-owned brothels to get the sex they feel entitled to when their wives no longer satisfy them in bed.

Now, I'm not bashing feminism for these reasons, nor am I advocating that women return to the home and reclaim their domestic tasks of cooking, cleaning, childcare, and satisfying their husbands. I certainly can't condemn women who hire babysitters or go clothes shopping. Rather, the people who work in these fields need to be given the respect and dignity they deserve from their employers and their customers, not to mention reasonable working conditions and living wages, whether they're sales associates, immigrant seamstresses, or prostitutes.

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