Lugar Común – Common Place

// 18 June 2010

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Lugar_Comu.jpgWhat is the relationship between domestic workers and women who employ them? How does the hierarchy of this situation play out?

50 pairs of women – domestic workers and their employers – posed for photographs in “equalising” white shirts, with no jewelry, as part of a project by photographer Justine Graham and visual artist Ruby Rumié.

IPS reports:

“We were both interested in the issue of domestic employment in the Latin American context, and over time we created this platform to show the points that these women have in common as they share the domestic environment in a hierarchical work relationship,” said Graham, who like Rumié has lived many years in Chile.

The artists used a variety of poses to portray each of the employer-employee pairs: seated, standing, facing forward, facing each other, or facing backwards. They found the women for the project through family members and friends in Santiago and Buenos Aires, and Bogotá and Cartagena in Colombia.

The women also filled in questionnaires which was used to demonstrate what they have in common.

“Each pair had a different relationship; some were much closer, lasting 30 years or more, and others knew each other just three or four months,” said Graham. But for all of the pairs, it was difficult to be photographed looking each other in the eyes, she said.

In Rumié’s view, “in some way, all Latin Americans who have experienced this (being cared for by a domestic employee) feel a debt to these women who have turned over part of their lives to the intimate chores of another family, often even giving up their own personal lives.”

For those of us who can’t make it to the photo exhibition in Chile’s Museum of Visual Arts, this PDF has some of the photos and some commentary (in Spanish).

Comments From You

frankie // Posted 19 June 2010 at 12:24 am

What did you like about this?!

I really hate this whole concept. Wearing identical white t-shirts doesn’t and can’t erase the very real and massive racial, social, economic or power inequalities in the relationship. Maids and nannies do some of the most underpaid, undervalued and hardest work, while often neglecting their own families through economic necessity. Isn’t this a bit of a feelgood whitewash by artists who come from a privileged employing background?

polly // Posted 19 June 2010 at 9:15 am

Why is the assumption that it is only women who employ domestic workers? If they are working for a family that family presumably often includes males, so some of their employers must be male, or a mixed male/female couple.

Jess McCabe // Posted 19 June 2010 at 10:46 am

Frankie, I think the photos themselves are interesting. The project doesn’t seem to be an attempt at ”whitewashing’ to me.

Yes Polly of course it’s not just women who employ domestic workers – perhaps the decision to focus on women employers reflects the artists/society’s ideas about women’s responsibilities in the domestic sphere?

Feminist Avatar // Posted 19 June 2010 at 12:26 pm

Do you think I could convince the Principal of my university to do this with his staff?

Or is it only interesting in a domestic context or where the power differential is between women?

There is a fascinating amount of critique of women’s employment of other women at the moment. One might cynically wonder whether this is a subtle backlash against m.class women in the workplace. A bit like the bigillion articles on m.class mothering in the Guardian at the moment! Give it a rest, I am not buying motherhood and huswifery as my salvation, thanks all the same.

Louise // Posted 19 June 2010 at 6:46 pm

@ Frankie

I think the white t-shirts were “equalising” in the sense that they removed the biggest visible indicator of wealth (clothing). Same idea behind getting the women to remove the jewellery. It makes it difficult to tell which woman was the employer and which was the employee, and the act of trying to figure that out challenges a lot of our preconceptions about status and privilege. It also makes the viewer devote equal attention to each woman, something that would rarely happen in the everyday social contexts where they share a space.

@ Polly

I wondered if the above was the reason they focused on female employers – domestic workers are usually female, so photographing the female employer allowed them to create a deliberate confusion of identity. In most of the photos, I really couldn’t guess who was who.

Jessica Burton // Posted 19 June 2010 at 9:54 pm

This project is good because it is visceral art. The purpose of the project is not the photoraphs but the few dozen women involved. This piece brought women together who are intimate yet divided by a wall and asked them to look at each other equally for the first time.

The viewer then gets to see the results of such an unusual encounter through the medium of photography. What’s most thrilling is that the results seem to be so positively emotionally charged. Everyone is smiling, laughing, engaging in each other’s space.

I think this work is feminists because it is excellent art with women as its focus.

frankie // Posted 20 June 2010 at 2:12 am

@ Louise

“It makes it difficult to tell which woman was the employer and which was the employee, and the act of trying to figure that out challenges a lot of our preconceptions about status and privilege.”

Thats the stated point of it, but I don’t think it works. In three out of four of those pictures one woman significantly darker skinned than the other and in the other one the face is hidden. I would always guess that the domestic worker was the darker skinned woman and that’s an entirely realistic preconception to have given that we live in a world with an imposed racial hierarchy (and so my preconceptions go totally unchallenged by this work).

Jilly // Posted 20 June 2010 at 12:42 pm

I think the photographs are interesting because they show women obviously having fun. Though I do understand they gloss over other differences.

@Feminist Avatar – I keep seeing articles suggesting it’s somehow immoral for women to employ other women to do their child care or housework. I don’t understand why people are saying that. Is it also immoral in that case for a man to employ another man to do his gardening or decorating?

Sheila // Posted 20 June 2010 at 1:28 pm

I like this project. I see the t-shirts and no jewelry as at least a visual attempt – which is what the photographic medium demands – at equalisation. I have employed women for the last 20 years both domestically and professionally, and employed men too both domestically and professionally. To most of my employees I owe a lot – and I don’t mean financially, but because of their loyalty and hard work and professionalism. I find it interesting to think about being an employment provider from a feminist perspective. Giving employment to someone is a good thing to do – it benefits another person economically and takes them out of unemployment. It carries with it a lot of responsibility to be fair and reasonable as an employer, not to exploit or bully, to promote and encourage and train. My former secretary who worked for me for seven years is now one of my best and closest friends. It does boil down, whatever the context, to responsibility and treating each other decently. Plenty of people on both sides of the employment equation don’t give their best enough. I’d agreed their are some people who lord it over their employees and that some of the most shocking examples of this concerning women are in the domestic context. But when you look at the history of labour relations you see plenty of abuses by men of men as well as every other permutation.

I don’t like the suggestion that I haven’t viewed people equally just because I employ them. That I ended up as an employer is partly through lack of choice – having to work to support a family as a single parent, and partly through choice – the career path I took enabled me to earn enough money to employ people individually rather than pay for institutionalised child care. Now I’m in a position to have a team report to me at work. That doesn’t make the people who report to me not my equal in any way except that they are less experienced or have chosen different paths and different work/life balances. My children’s nanny is 15 years older than me. I cannot imagine a social situation where the two of us would not be treated equally. Maybe there are sometimes perceptions of inequality if there is a big age gap and the employer is older, or a racial difference – neither of which are fair, but do happen. On other terms, we consult each other about when to take holiday, we cover for each other when ill, I increase her pay by the same percentage as my increases – not something I can always achieve in the non-domestic workplace where remuneration is committeeised. I don’t see myself as “divided by a wall” from my children’s nanny or my reports at work. If I do well at work (partly due to her support) my children’s nanny does well too – we share out the gains. If I lost my job, she’d lose hers too. My team at work are my responsibility – if they get things wrong, it reflects worst on me as the most experienced person who ought to have provided the training and structure not to get things wrong. I don’t like this them and us myth. Interdependence between the employing and the employed is much more subtle than that. I’m almost certain I’ll be shouted down as middle class privileged, patronising etc but you don’ know my background at all – you just know I earn enough to employ someone and to treat them properly.

Jess McCabe // Posted 20 June 2010 at 2:49 pm

I would just say that the image I used here for illustration is from out-takes – I really recommend having a look at the PDF linked in the post for a more rounded idea…

Feminist Avatar // Posted 20 June 2010 at 4:17 pm

Employing women (or men) to perform domestic jobs is no more or less exploitative than in any other work context (and like in any context is open to abuse). Clearly, the ability to employ people to work in your home highlights your class privilege, but so does all of your consumption choices, so it is problematic to pick on domestic labour as the fighting ground to challenge capitalism.

The reason it makes people uncomfortable is that women employing other people to work in their homes destabilises the duality between the non-economic world of the home and the economic world of work outside the home. It challenges long-standing assumptions about appropriate places for work, and what types of jobs can be monitised. It is hard to argue that the home is the refuge for the evils of the capitalist workplace, when the home is also a workplace. This is further complicated by the intimacy that is assumed to be created within relationships that happen in the home. How do we monetise the intimate- and that makes us deeply uncomfortable (unless we are talking prostitutes it seems).

But, more than this, I think a lot of this discomfort also comes from the devaluation of housework and childcare. A lot of rhetoric around employing women to do housework actually talks as if you are asking people to demean themselves by taking on these roles- as if housework was something horrific. This is reinforced by the low pay given to cleaners and carers, which structurally points to these roles as jobs for the poor, for the working-class (and so worth less). And, I think that is because society’s has so little respect for women’s work within the home that we can’t imagine anybody wanting to do it (except out of love and sacrifice!). And, I think this attitude has to be challenged- housework is not demeaning, it is essential. It is poor-pay is a structure of the capitalist economy, not of its innate value.

I think we can also see this in the artwork, where there is an assumption that these women need to be equalised through wearing white t-shirts (and they probably do, class hierarchy is real), but in what other workplace would we ask management to dress the same as the workers for an artistic experiment? Why is it only in the domestic context that the power differentials inherent in the employer/ employee relationship make us uncomfortable? And, the problem I see is that I am not sure that we are really uncomfortable with the exploitation of poor women (where are our pictures of poor factory workers and fieldworkers so iconic in Latin America?)- we are uncomfortable with how money changes the nature of the domestic sphere and what it means when women can be employers, especially in the home. And to me this is a good thing- it’s disrupting some normative and sexist values.

Bring on wages for the housewife! Vive la Revolution!

Jess McCabe // Posted 20 June 2010 at 4:43 pm

I think we can also see this in the artwork, where there is an assumption that these women need to be equalised through wearing white t-shirts (and they probably do, class hierarchy is real), but in what other workplace would we ask management to dress the same as the workers for an artistic experiment?

I think that would also be quite a good artistic experiment.

Generally, I don’t agree that paying someone to do domestic work is necessarily exploitative, however it is perhaps the case that this low-status work is simply being shifted onto poorer women, as richer women gain economic and social power? This is happening instead of a complete change to how households operate, in response to pressure for more options for wealthy women?

It’s very complex, but I have some reservations about the wages for housework idea. As you note, domestic work is undervalued by capitalist wage systems and I can’t see how this would change anything, so such wages would be most likely low.

Also: who would pay those wages? Given the strong social expectations that women will largely do housework, would it largely be women doing that work still? Would it be a factor keeping women from doing other forms of work, and increasing the gender segregation of the workforce with women doing poorer paid, lower status work? What happens in single-person households?

Instead, if we’re imagining radical solutions, how about imagining a total shift in how we organise households, towards more communal living, with everyone pitching in? Just some thoughts, no particular answers…

Feminist Avatar // Posted 20 June 2010 at 5:03 pm

I suppose the other side of the ‘shifting of low-status work from rich to poor women’ is whether this is really a shift- it’s not like domestic service is a novel idea in the grand historical scheme of things!

But, that is a fair point.

I do think we need to work harder at challenging the idea that housework is ‘low-status’ however. I also think that this ‘shift’ isn’t unique to domestic labour- we have also shifted food production into factories where it is produced by poor women- to free up rich women.

The other side of this is that domestic service in many contexts can be quite flexible in terms of hours- which is great for women with other caring responsibilities and can allow some women to run their own businesses etc- so the exploited servant motif isn’t straightforward either.

I also think we need to be careful about pitting this as rich women against poor, because I doubt all these rich women are single and childfree. If poor women are freeing up rich women’s time, they are also freeing up rich men’s time (just because they haven’t being doing their share doesn’t make them less liable).

I have to be honest I could only envision wages for housework working in an economy where all wages were equalised- I don’t think it would work under the current system. But the current system isn’t working anyway (in terms of the work/ home split, the capitalist economy and the way we currently view children and childcare). It is time for some radical rethinking.

Louise // Posted 20 June 2010 at 9:11 pm

@ Frankie

In three out of four of those pictures one woman significantly darker skinned than the other and in the other one the face is hidden. I would always guess that the domestic worker was the darker skinned woman and that’s an entirely realistic preconception to have given that we live in a world with an imposed racial hierarchy (and so my preconceptions go totally unchallenged by this work).

In the larger set of photos in the pdf, it’s not the case the 3/4 of the photos have a skintone cue to which is the employer or employee. In many cases, both women have pretty equivalent skin colours, whether relatively dark or pale.

But even in the cases where the viewer is consciously using skintone as a cue to distinguish employer or employee, there is no way of knowing if that distinction is right. So, as the viewer, one must choose between either (a) using a stereotypical, racial cue to wealth and status, or (b) desisting from using that cue and thus refraining from categorising the women.

That said, it’s art… so the interpretation depends heavily on the viewer, and people will inevitably disagree on what they get out of it as a piece of work!

Tara // Posted 28 June 2010 at 11:13 pm

I grew up with an extremely hard working mother, we were firmly in the lower middle class; we

nevertheless always had household help. We mostly employed women even poorer than us, from an

constantly changing pool of migrant workers who moved up from the back-breaking work of

industrial labour to relatively easier domestic work, with potentially flexible timings that

allowed them to work with young children. There were two types of arrangements; one, where the

‘maid’ would visit once or twice a day and complete a set schedule of chores, sweep and mop

the floors, wash the dishes, wash and dry the laundry and clean the bathrooms etc. For this

she would charge a fixed amount per month, with bonuses for holidays, a raise once in two

years and a day off each week, plus vacation time negotiated as it came up. The ‘maid’ would

work as many houses as she could depending on how old her children were, how much she needed

the money and whether she had any help with childcare at home. The second arrangement was when

my mother returned to work outside the home. She then asked our daily maid if she would be

willing to work longer hours, take up childcare after school and cook, in exchange for

increased pay and living quarters for her and her daughter; all of us children could be cared

for together this way.

This was the only way my mother could have managed to hold down a full

time job outside the home. The arrangements were informal and the women frequently brought

their children to work; we played together or frequently, tutored each other and did our

homework as our mothers together did the housework.

If you dressed my mother and any one of

our maids in identical clothes you couldn’t tell who was employer and who was employee. There

were no race/color differences.

I did not grow up thinking domestic work was abhorrent or

lowly. I did and do think of it as hard, legitimate and necessary and worthwhile work; added

to child-rearing work it becomes a full-time job and I cannot concieve of working outside the

home as well as being solely responsible for domestic work and child-rearing. I think it is

unfair that women particularly in insular, urban families continue to have to struggle to

balance what ought to be two full-time jobs.

While exploiting other women shouldn’t be the answer; ignoring, minimizing, piece-mealing and technologizing household work and child care does not really fully address the fact that it is still a full-time job. I believe that having domestic help is a distinct advantage that priviledged women in non-western, labour-rich markets have as opposed to women in developed western nations. So much so, that I am certain that I will return home if i want to have and raise children, while being able to work outside the home. As for exploiting labour, I have no illusions that the subsidized products and services I use in other areas of my life are free from labour-exploitation in this globalized economy. At home atleast I can control the situation and strive to improve both my lot and my employee’s, providing employment is indeed a one of the better ways of sharing wealth.

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