Domestic bliss comes at a cost
On the last day of my holiday I cut my hand on a knife in sudsy sink water. It was the fourth time that day I had washed greasy dishes. After cleaning, clearing, and packing away, my husband described me as bustling and resentful.
But what if I were a depressed housewife, with no job, living in poverty and oppression? I might leave my injured hand and watch blood redden the dirty water. Water would surely hasten the loss of blood? Images of suicide victims in bath tubs flashed through my mind. Suicide at a kitchen sink?
Don't get me wrong. I am not about to kill myself nor am I particularly resentful and depressed about my happy lot in life. But I'd been pondering domestic oppression. On holiday, cooking and cleaning up takes on a zen-like quality. And there is even time to read books.
Back in the big smoke, with work life looming, domestic work no longer felt pleasurable. Not only because my kitchen sink doesn't have a view onto the hills of the Klein Karoo, but because there are 101 things to get done "now".
At the sink, knowing life would be back to normal soon, I thought about how women's lives have improved, and how very recently this has happened.
But whose lives have improved? By outsourcing our domestic responsibilities using affordable labour, are we not outsourcing our oppression? Some say by paying the wages we do, we're not oppressing the women who work in our homes. But at what salary is this not oppressive work? At what salary does picking grapes in the Western Cape cease to be slave labour?
These are hard questions.
Maybe the issue with domestic work isn't whether the women we employ are oppressed as women. Maybe the issue is whether they are exploited as workers. Many are, according to a report recently released by the International Labour Organisation.
"Combined with the lack of rights, the extreme dependency on an employer and the isolated and unprotected nature of domestic work can render [workers] vulnerable to exploitation and abuse," said Sandra Polaski, the ILO's deputy director-general.
The report was issued as countries sign the 2011 UN convention on domestic work. We need to sign it and stick to, or even improve on the suggested standards. Life at the kitchen sink is no fun for anybody.