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On Tuesday, as Britons were mulling over the measures in the first phase of easing Covid lockdown, Twitter exploded in a spat that was quickly dubbed #cleanergate. Alongside labourers in jobs such as food production and construction, the workers encouraged to return to work in “phase 1” included, to the surprise of many, domestic cleaners and nannies. Caitlin Moran called this policy out as being rank with class privilege: “That you can have your cleaner or your nanny visit your house, but not your parents, is so parodically the call of posh men who were sent away to boarding school, it’s actually made me hysterical”.
With leaders of unions Unison, Unite, the GMB and Usdaw warning that the government’s back-to-work plans were tantamount to a waging a war against the working classes, socialist columnist Owen Jones weighed in: ”If you are a middle-class professional who has a cleaner, you should be paying them their wages as normal and letting them stay at home,” he tweeted. “If you ask them to come and clean your home, you are a monumentally selfish person and that’s really all there is to it.”
Feminist Twitter piled on to decry Jones’ cluelessness as a childless gay man, ignorant of the daily drudgery endured by working mothers. What was the problem, some argued, if cleaning work was ennobled through the act of being financially rewarded? My single mum friend Kate tweeted that Jones was “the dictionary definition of a gaslighting misogynist” then sent me a message reading: “I hope I’m blocked now.” The row was too wearying. Men would never get it.
“Covid has shone an uncompromising light on the dirty truths of our domestic labour fixes. It’s time feminists came clean about them.”
But how is it that feminists took with such gusto to paying other women to do the “women’s work” that Second Wave feminism reviled? One of the answers, of course, is the stalled domestic revolution. From the 1970s to the late 1990s British men increased their domestic efforts, excluding childcare, from an average of one hour and 20 minutes a week, to 19 hours a week, as women entered the paid workforce in unprecedented numbers. In 1998, around when I was living in ladette, student filth, these efforts went into reverse. By 2016, we’d lost an hour of British male effort a week, as US men contributed a whole two fewer hours than they had in the 90s to the weekly mopping, wiping and repetitive meal preparation that keep a heterosexual household on the road.
At the same time, Britons took to paying others to scrub their u-bends, and fish the spaghetti out their sinks with a readiness not seen since the Downton Abbey days. By 2018, one in three Britons had a cleaner. In most cases, these new domestic labourers were working class migrants, and, in 93% of cases, they were women. British women had offloaded their shitwork down a racialised and working class labour line and, in doing so – here the inescapable feminist irony – reinscribed this work as “women’s work”.
But, you might ask, what about tweeters’ argument that, through pay, this work becomes professional work? After all, isn’t this what the Wages for Housework activists who stormed Washington DC in the 1970s had in mind? Remuneration for domestic labour to prove that it was work, rather than the effortlessly given fruits of motherly love? But in reality, this position only holds if you’re paying your cleaner the rate you earn an hour, or, at the very least, the British median wage (£14.31) plus travel costs; anything less and you’re adjudging one woman’s labour as being less important than your leisure. In a Covid era, with the heightened risk faced by cleaners, who are typically paid around £8 an hour, these arguments from the point of view of job creation look even weaker.
Maria, a domestic cleaner who is being pressured to return to work by her agency, told me: “Cleaners don’t have enough protective equipment and we are worried. We keep taking care to remove gloves in a certain way and wear masks if we have them. But there is no way to leave this fear because we need to pay high rents and eat.”
Already this is poorly remunerated work Maria resorts to because her migrant status and language skills gave her little choice. Now it’s work that puts her in real danger for half the sum, per hour, that the average Londoner spends on her lunch.
I applaud the fact that many middle class Britons have continued paying their absent cleaners through lockdown, but it’s time that middle class sympathies matured into a frank debate. A debate about what we’re asking of other women when we ask them to enter our homes and scrub our u-bends for meagre wages; and what what we’re asking of the cleaners who are to be the frontline in a government back-to-work strategy that calls for Covid-safe deep cleaning of schools and business premises after outbreaks.
Covid has shone an uncompromising light on the dirty truths of our domestic labour fixes. It’s time feminists came clean about them.
Sally Howard is author of The Home Stretch (Why It’s Time To Come Clean About Who Does the Dishes), published by Atlantic Books