Subordination in Home Service Jobs: Comparing Providers of Home-Based Childcare, Elder Care, and Cleaning in France

Domestic worker

Source: International Labour Organization

by Christelle Avril and Marie Cartier

Home-based service jobs have developed considerably across Western societies. In fact, chances are high that a working-class woman in France today will, at some point in her life, be a house cleaner, home-based childcare provider, or home aide for the elderly. Political, scholarly, and everyday discourses, saturated with the double prejudices of gender and class, treat all these home service occupations, which require little prior training, the same. In our article (here), we illuminate the variability of the forms of subordination experienced by women in these occupations in France.

While domestic workers have often been studied using qualitative research, we use nationally representative statistical data to expand the field of study, including home-based workers across France. To better understand what elements of subordination or autonomy might exist, and to measure their intensity, we separately compare the jobs of home aide for the elderly, home-based childcare provider, and house cleaner to all “low-skilled” occupations. We also use qualitative data from direct observation of home aides for the elderly and home-based childcare providers to enrich the interpretation of statistical data.

Since the 1970s, feminist research has shown that domestic work is indeed “work”, by focusing on the professional sphere instead of the familial sphere. Yet a stumbling block for feminist analysis has been its unreflexive use of categories like “domestic work” that does not consider how this work varies. By comparing the work of house cleaners, home aides for the elderly, and home-based childcare providers, we demonstrate that the degree and nature of workers’ subordination vary among these jobs according to whether they have contact with colleagues or not, the kind of residence where the work takes place (their own home or someone else’s), and, whether there is a “public” or not.

We show that house cleaners are by far the most isolated in their work, but that this is paired with significant autonomy in how they do their job and organize their time. Home aides for the elderly and home-based childcare providers may have greater access to formal and informal mutual aid networks at work. Yet, they are especially exposed to stressful situations, and their material tasks are compounded by relational work with vulnerable persons. While home aides handle a particularly challenging public that exposes them to physical and verbal aggression, home-based childcare providers’ situations seem paradoxical. Working from their own homes, they have a great deal of autonomy. Yet at the same time, they seem less likely to be aware of their subjection to certain temporal and physical constraints. This is partly because they work in their own homes (and cannot compare across a variety of homes, as home aides and house cleaners do) and partly because they take care of young children, a public that has become sacred in French society, which makes it difficult to represent them as a burden.

To render the subordination typical of these predominantly feminine domestic jobs visible and advance feminist research, we point to the need to study care work from every angle, if we are to avoid naturalizing it.

Christelle Avril is professor of sociology at the University of Paris, France. Marie Cartier is associate professor of sociology at University of Nantes, France. Their co-authored article, “Subordination in Home Service Jobs: Comparing Providers of Home-Based Child Care, Elder Care and Cleaning in France,” is published in the August 2014 issue of Gender & Society. To read the article, click here.

Cross-posted at the Gender & Society blog.

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