Pandemic pinch point: invisible domestic labour

A key area for further consideration in terms of how the state regrouped under COVID to continue the “invisibilising” of domestic labour is the issue of furlough. While paid, legitimised labour was given some (often pitiful) status as needing sustenance during its halting under COVID in the form of furlough payments, this missed the material reality of much labour, including the gig economy, and illegitimate hidden, paid outsourced reproductive labour (including migrant domestic workers, and sex workers). The return of children to the home brought the dual labour of care and education to the household but while legitimate workers were paid (too little) to stop work there was no economic provision made for this work to be taken on (disproportionately by women) in the home, and the demand for this was not made across the left.

Perhaps understandably, the case was not made by organised voices of education workers, who were still working, at even higher levels, to manage hybrid classrooms of on-site and online students, and whose labour was facing a similar “disappearing” onslaught in the right wing media. It is easy to see how this marginalisation and false depiction of “idle teachers” could be reinforced further by a call to pay parents to teach and care for their children alongside the need to pay teachers for all the work they were doing. The case certainly was not made by a toothless opposition, which tried to retain the support of overwhelmed mothers through treating the need for children to be in school during a pandemic as the solution rather than a continuation of the ideology allowing the overwhelming of mothers in the home to be a feature rather than a bug. It is notable that the left in the Labour party were in exodus, doubling down, or fighting expulsion in the wake of the smashing of the Corbyn project. Almost in parallel, in UCU, a big hole in militant leadership was left by the untimely death in early 2020 of Nita Sanghera, first elected Black president and first left president since Liz Lawrence (elected 2013) who was due to take post that summer. Alongside this, there was a regrouping of a new section of elected activists close to General Secretary Jo Grady (who had emerged during the militancy of the 2018 USS strikes) now in partnership with the older Communist Party based right wing of the union in denouncing HE strike action in the immediate run-up to COVID as ill-advised and idealistic.

For Federici (2020) there is a clear parallel between the work of trade unions and the work of the family for the state: “Like the trade union, the family protects the worker but also ensures that he and she will never be anything but workers” (although both have the potential also for developing solidarity and resistance). This is a feature shared with radical education work in that all recreate as well as having the potential to resist the state. Left COVID inertia on the issue of domestic labour makes sense reading Federici (2020), who has identified over a long time how the liberal feminist focus on participation in (professional) paid work outside of the home has served to give access to power over other women. This is turn has broken the solidarity needed to mobilise on domestic labour or to make this mobilisation a central demand for women. As such it has served to reinforce the “invisibilising” of domestic labour (through outsourcing to poorly paid other women) which capitalism rests on, a scenario which also has to be understood in the context of global movement of labour and the hostile environment.

One clashing point which gained “viral” UK social media exposure for a brief time in the pandemic exposed the fractures in a coherent left response where liberal feminism and more “intersectional” responses alike ignore the need for domestic work to be treated as equal to paid work in our activism. When access to cleaners and nannies was prioritised by the government in the loosening of restrictions in the first wave, it was clear that removing barriers as soon as possible to the cheap outsourcing of domestic labour was the government’s pay-off to middle class women, who were disproportionately compared to their male counterparts experiencing career-stalling and overload as the pandemic collapsed education, care and the work of maintaining a lived-in house into the space and time of the working day normally allocated to professional work.

The lack of solidarity Federici identifies was in clear evidence. Working class, disproportionately Black women were expected to join the large body of “key-workers” (primarily also working class and as such structurally disproportionately Black workers) in risking their lives, in this instance to do the work in other people’s homes that the government would not pay them to do in their own. The solution proposed by a younger left more closely aligned with intersectional feminism was to continue to uphold a line between formally recognised labour (which can be suspended and paid for by the government), and by default invisible domestic labour which can be absorbed into household work. Neither side identified the need to suspend paid labour for unpaid labour to be accommodated collectively in the home during the pandemic, and for this to be a demand made of the state. This was captured in a particularly memorable exchange with Owen Jones stating on twitter that those who could afford cleaners would have more time in lockdown and should pay cleaners to stay home. The journalist Sarah Ditum took issue with the suggestion that she would have more time, memorably tweeting that the work of cleaning up with teenagers at home on top of holding down a job was (seemingly without irony) “KILLING” her. Jones’s response was to suggest she needed to manage her home better through distributing tasks to the teenagers: a better solution in the short term than forcing working class women to risk their safety in resuming paid domestic labour. Nevertheless, still a solution upholding a system of devaluing domestic labour through directing pinch points at individual female responsibility rather than collective action, and so one which upholds the conditions which set working class, disproportionately Black women up for poorer health outcomes and risky work.

References:

Federici, S. (2020). Revolution at point zero: housework, reproduction and feminist struggle (2nd edition). Toronto: Between the Lines books.

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5 comments

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