Interview: Muscling Up
Unions: Thinking Pink
Bad Boss: Global Bully
Unions: National Focus
Economics: Friend or Flunkey?
History: Young Blood
Industrial: Living For Work?
International: Fighting Together
Poetry: Medicare Plus Blues
Review: Human Racing
The Locker Room
A New Mark for Labor
Bob Gould On Kicking The Liberals Out
Friend or Flunkey?
One of the most distinct characteristics of the new economy is income insecurity. There is a rising income gap between those with permanent full time jobs doing pretty well despite having longer hours and those on casual or part time hours. These longer hours may be making them make more use of domestic workers. Gabrielle Meagher shows that this trend isn't as strong as we might think. The ethics of employing a domestic worker are something those lucky enough to be able afford it should consider.
There are strong arguments that see the use of domestic service workers as reprehensible in itself because:
Meagher's study considers these issues carefully, by close analysis of the work of such writers on the shape of the new economy and its social structures as Nancy Fraser, Andre Gorz and Gosta Esping-Anderson. More importantly she does it through listening closely to the voices of workers and others involved in this industry.
One interesting approach to the labour hire industry is central to the domestic service industry. Unions in Australia have been lobbying and campaigning against the way the labour hire industry has grown unregulated. The NSW government looked into this after union agitation a few years ago, so far to no avail. Labor Council is running a test case at the moment. Meagher highlights some examples of collective action by workers that provide a good example of labour hire. The case of CHOICE, in San Fransisco, where workers in the domestic service sector have established their own labour hire, with no middle men, and a career and skills based approach. Also in San Fransisco another firm, AMIGOS has set up a without the skills approach but at least provides a decent base for workers to use as they move between employers, thus leaving them less vulnerable to the whims of a particular employer, who often are in such a strong position of hire and fire, with no other employment possibility to fall back on.
The skills based approach is an example of the sort of collective action to "professionalise" the industry as a way of improving the status, conditions and pay of workers.
Professionalisation has lead to problems however, so is not a panacea. One source of increased inequality has been the way it has become an equivalent to the skilled tradesman's role and a businessman's approach. Men who have got into the domestic service industry as a small business, the ability they have had to sell themselves in the way plumber's or carpenter's do mean they have been able to command higher rates and better status, because they are men. This further marginalizes women, who are not represented to any extent in those traditional trades, and are still seen as "just cleaners".
Gaining respect is a problem and as status rises so does pay. Meagher has previously looked at the nursing industry and how it has achieved professionalisation. The actions of unions such as the Service Employees International (SEIU) in the USA and Kommunal (Sweden) and the establishment of service co-operatives and other specialized labour hire arrangements are a way of approaching this.
Political limits in Australia are the lack of enthusiasm by supposedly worker friendly Labor governments to regulate labour hire generally, let alone properly fund the area where such contracts for service are a real need, such as the Home Care Service of NSW.The lack of resources at the disposal of local governments contrasts sharply with the situation in Sweden, where Kommunal have been able to use the established and expected standards of the welfare state model as a foundation to organize and achieve a greater degree of equality for women's labour in this area of recognized social need.
Kommunal's success has come about because of their broad approach. For Australians unions the real lessons are to be drawn from their approach. Whilst recognizing the different political economy of Sweden, Kommunal's approach has been undertaken at a time when they too have had to face the rise of economic liberalism and its attacks on the welfare state. Kommunal's struggle for decent work they recognize the need to re-assert the welfare state but not just as a return to a perceived "golden age" but as claiming of a solid place for women as truly equal citizens in an egalitarian society.
Meagher argues that it is not wrong to pay for domestic work, but we need to have a strong individual moral base for employing someone. Power inequality is at the base of all employee-employer relationships. To have a formal contract for service, with clear boundaries and tasks, is essential. Well regulated formal institutions such as co-operative labour hire agencies, with a skill development function, backed by government regulation must be a part of the industry.
With the rise of labour hire and insecurity Gabrielle Meagher's arguments for the domestic worker sector can provide a basis for a decent regulation of employment and thus more secure jobs, better conditions and greater social equality. With employer on the offensive and becoming more offensive to their workforce, these essentially minimalist demands should be at the basis of trade union demands as they deal with the new economy in the new century.
Gabrielle Meagher. Friend Or Flunkey? Paid domestic workers in the new economy.
(Sydney: UNSW Press, 2003)
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