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People Still Have Servants, But Now They Outsource Them

People Still Have Servants, But Now They Outsource Them

It’s the time of year when you might see at least one article about “how much should you give the doorman/nanny/housekeeper” for a holiday tip but, because you scrub your own floors, rush home from work to pick up your children at school and open your own door (while holding onto a few bags of groceries and your child), you don’t read more than the headline.

Few Americans today have live-in servants. Those wealthy Americans who do and are calculating the holiday tip for their nannies, dog walkers, drivers, etc. would very likely not to refer to them as “servants” even though they are just that, as Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter David Cay Johnston writes in Al Jazeera.

The difference is that today’s servants are “outsourced” and are domestic (from the Latin word domus, “house”) in name only. As Johnston explains, even though domestic workers are paid relatively more than their counterparts a century ago, they end up earning less.

Here’s why: 1 in 45 urban American families had live-in servants in the 1930s, before the start of the Great Depression. Citing a century-old book about the etiquette of hiring servants, Johnston notes that, in 1910, a household book earned an average of $10 a week, the equivalent of $235 per week today. Under†the federal minimum wage for 40 hours, a cook today would make $290 a week.

Nonetheless, while the 2013-minimum wage cook makes $55 extra than their 1910 counterpart, Johnston argues that they are actually worse off due to the costs of transportation (which can take up about a third of their pay) and of rent and food; live-in servants had both of the latter provided for them. Plus, the live-in servants of †1910 did not pay taxes. In contrast,†Johnston†says

… [a] 2013 cook pays 7.65 percent of his or her income in Social Security taxes as well as income taxes on more than a third of his pay, assuming full-time work every week of the year. For a single person, thatís about $29 of that $55 raise deducted for taxes.

60 percent of domestic workers spend half their income on housing and a fifth run out of food every month. If they’re making $290 a week, there’s not much left for basic expenses.

Johnston focuses on domestic workers’ wages without going into detail about the disadvantages of workers living under the same roof as their employers from a lack of privacy and separation from true families. But his point that American workers are getting shortchanged under the current system is undeniable.

More and more, Johnston argues that “prosperous American families” are adopting “the same approach to wages for servants as big successful companies, hiring freelance outside contractors for all sorts of functions ó from child care and handyman chores to gardening and cleaning work ó to reduce costs.” Just as many companies — †notably,†fast food coroporations — hire workers for just enough hours that they are considered part-time and not eligible for benefits, so is the 1 percent of American families who hires domestic workers seeking ways to cut corners as much as possible.

It’s very much for employers’ advantage to contract out for services. As workers don’t, or rather can’t, live too near their place of employment, outsourcing is also to their employers’ advantage: the hardships that workers face are kept out of sight and mind.†They may not be called servants but, in many ways, today’s workers arguably have it worse.

Currently, domestic workers in the United States currently don’t have the right to rest periods and collective bargaining. In a few parts of the country, domestic workers have been gaining much-needed protections. In September, California governor Jerry Brown signed a bill of rights for domestic workers. The number of hours that certain domestic work employees work must now be regulated; they are also to receive an overtime compensation rate. The bill, AB 241, is just a start.

An†earlier version of the bill had included†standards for meal and rest breaks and sleeping periods; it also called for paid vacation for individuals who had been employed for more than a year in the same private household; as Care2′s Edwina Duenas wrote, these measures were left out of the final version of the bill.

I certainly hope that those who work as nannies, housekeepers, gardeners and in other jobs are getting generous tips this holiday season. Even more, let’s keep up the push in 2014 for more, for all, domestic workers to gain the protections that they do not simply deserve, but have more than earned their right to have.

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4:02PM PST on Jan 11, 2014

Generally those who are servants are from other countries and are not citizens. Thus they will take any job and wage to support and their families. There is a reason the rich are rich; they hold on to their money. They aren't generous employers. The reason unions became powerful in this country was tha. t the workers were treated poorly. Employers aren't to willing to share the goodies; they believe that if you don't come from wealth, have an education, special training, come from a certain social status, you are not equal to them That[s just the way the cookie crumbles. That's GOP thinking. Remember Mitt the Twit and his 49% of freeloaders of those who were not in the top 1 to 2%. GOP really believes that and so do the very wealthy.

10:35PM PST on Dec 24, 2013

Thanks David F "Unless one is disabled, or their time is very valuable, the services of in-house help isn’t needed as it once was". Might be the case in the US but certainly not in Australia - it's a boom industry ever since the GFS..people's mindset changed about the way the spent their money..rather than stuff - they hired staff..to help cope with the stresses of modern day living..they call it to treating themselves...I know because I own a 5 star cleaning business that I started to fill this need..a 4 hour spring clean, before those dreaded guest arrive..$225..a price so many are willing to pay...moving out or into a new home. stressville....@ $500 you're considered an Angel

BTW like your new Icon

10:43AM PST on Dec 22, 2013

David, you just laid out exactly what I said. You're living in a stereotype of concepts that aren't even active because the present situation is not set up to make it possible, except for maybe a few elites.Sounds like you're telling us that what was called Maxism in the past, IS 'free market capitalism'as it exists today.But Most people do not have liberty of if movement in and out of jobs, nor the time to innovate like they could if survival weren't at the forefront. When busnesses, large or small can pay their workers a living wage, pay for cleaning up their own messes, not pollute the air, soil or water, not destroy landscapes, then we'll be on the same page. And this goes for any 'clean energy' or organic farm who just stops useing chemicals, destroying natural environments for it's wind farms, exc. as well. They are just the same kind of people as the ones in power now who think if they change clothes and talk 'Green Speak' we won't
recognize them. It's the change of consciousness I'm looking for.And by the way, I favor a tax on consumption, instead of income. The Fair Tax.org has a good plan the last time I checked.

9:52AM PST on Dec 22, 2013

Joanne, Capitalism was around long before governments. I can think of some accomplishments in civilization underwritten by a government, but they were invented and produced by free market entities, even the lunar landers sitting on the moon today have a Grumman logo on their side. Give me some examples of what you believe is a product that did not involve capitalism.

8:49AM PST on Dec 22, 2013

David F, somebody needs to read some history. Capitalism is comparatively new. Without a few thousand years of human society under its belt, capitalism would have nothing to develop. Even today, I believe the really interesting ideas are coming from outside capitalism.

8:41AM PST on Dec 22, 2013

Mary B. everything manmade around you was developed and produced by Capitalism, you owe the concept of the free market far more than you think.
Capitalism is the creative use, manipulation, and exchange of ideas, money and material to propagate self-interest-- money is the medium of exchange. Competition keeps power diffused. Political rule is by participation of the individual in a system that taxes only for safety and protection of the individual and system. Each is "free" to help his neighbor and charitably disburse his materiel according to his own judgment. Liberty over one's life energy is maintained.
Marxism is the manipulation and use of people to propagate collective interest (defined by self appointed ruling intellectual elites)-- humans are the currency or medium of exchange for the ruling elites to maintain power. Political rule is maintained by rewarding a majority constituent by confiscating money, and labor from a wealth producing minority. "To each according to his need, from each according to his ability". Each, according to his ability, is "compelled" to give to the ruling elite class, which disburses that materiel according to the ruling elite's subjective self-interest. Free choice over one's life energy is diminished, (credit to whomever wrote the above)

8:09PM PST on Dec 21, 2013

David , We have all those new things, IN SPITE of what's being called 'free market capitalism'. Just think of the innovation that could have happened by now if people didn't have to spend most of their time working for pay they can barely survive on. And fighting to get better wages and working conditions.But, hey, keep up your fantasy, it will become real, it just won't look like what we have now. Workers will have their share of the country's money supply in the form of a living wage stipend every month so they never again have to stay in a bad job.There will be no stigma around getting money from the government because people will finally 'get it' that it can't be got from any place else. All the lies glorifying capitalism will be exposed, and the good parts of socialism, free market economy, personal responsability, and community contribution, and lots of other solutions will be re-invented for this day and technology. You live in a memory from a past where life was harder, tyrants ruled and fewer people had tasted freedom and comfort. If you think we're planning on going back to that, you're a fool. Which is too bad because there's no reason for anybody to keep holding onto that fear.

9:50AM PST on Dec 21, 2013

Thanks for the article...

8:24AM PST on Dec 21, 2013

Interesting view

5:39AM PST on Dec 21, 2013

With dish clothes washers, dryers, wrinkle free clothes, microwave convection ovens instead of wood ovens, refrigerators, filled with pre-prepared food, vacuum cleaners, etc, life is easier then 80 years ago. Unless one is disabled, or their time is very valuable, the services of in-house help isn’t needed as it once was. Thank you, free market captalisim.

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