Monday, October 01, 2007

Clean exploitation?

There's a good discussion brewing at 11D and Megan McArdle about whether we middle and upper-class people should feel guilty about hiring help to clean our houses. We have a cleaning woman. We've had the same cleaning woman for 6 years. I suspect we're her cheapest clients. The first time she came to our apartment, she looked around and said, "Yeah, you need help." And we'd cleaned up before she came over.

One of the main reasons we hired a cleaning woman is articulated nicely by one of 11D's commenters:
I sense that, in hiring a cleaning lady, I'm not really buying back my own time as much as I'm avoiding a HUGE, life-long argument with my husband about him actually doing his share.
Honestly, I suck at housekeeping. I hate it. I have a kind of ideal desire for a clean house, but lose motivation very quickly. And since I've had kids, I'm mostly just overwhelmed by the complete mess they leave in their wake. Mr. Geeky feels much the same way, but has even less time to devote to housekeeping. We were honestly having the same argument over and over about who should do what and we were keeping score and all that crap. And it wasn't fun and even though we couldn't really afford it, we hired a housekeeper to end that argument. We still have it every once in a while, but we don't live in squalor for at least a few days every week.

In the comments to both posts, some commenters are really talking about cleaning services as opposed to hiring an individual. One commenter at Megan's, for example, claims that we hire people to do things for us when they are better or more efficient than we are.
But a cleaning lady does not perform the function any better than you or I could. They are not faster, and if they are, it is often to the detriment of the quality of the work. In other words, you pay them because your opportunity cost is greater than the savings you would accumulate by not paying these people. . . .

Hey, we have all in a pinch used a service or function that we may have objections to. But I know my fiancé and I go out of our way to not use the cleaning services because they are nothing but exploitive businesses, and thus, you the customer are an extension of that very model.
I read Nickeled and Dimed. I know Merry Maids and its ilk pay minimum wage and no insurance, etc. That's why I hired an independent contractor who works for herself. She sets her own fees. I also happen to know that she has health insurance through her husband's job and that the money she earns from cleaning houses is going to pay for her kids' college education. I'm really okay with that if she is. I don't think she would have put the ad in the paper if she weren't. And if she wants to quit, that's okay with me too. And if I let her go, I know she will find another client quickly in this market.

It's true that they may be housecleaners their whole lives, but they may not be either. Laura explains in her post that some of her guilt comes from this issue to which some people said, "What about bussers at restaurants?" She responds in a comment:
House cleaners are different from people who bus tables in a restaurant. The table bussers have the opportunity to move up the ranks of restaurant workers to waiters to maitre d's. They progressively work up to fancier restaurants where they make more money and have more job satisfaction.
Not that I've seen. We must dine in different restaurants. I was a waitress for years and bussers and dishwashers almost never moved up the ranks. A dishwasher might move to bussing and a busser might move to being bar back or get better shifts and more tips, but I never saw a busser become a waiter. I have no idea if that's what they wanted to do and so were thwarted in their goals. It's just what I've observed. In the restaurants I've worked in, bartending is the top of the ladder (aside from management) and that's where the good tips are. Like housekeeping, bussing and dishwashing is largely invisible work done by the less educated.

There's also some talk about what class we are really in. A while back, when the NYTimes printed that series on class, I was shocked to find myself in the top 5%. I've never considered myself rich, because I think we're shown so many images of the truly rich (and I drive by their houses every day) that I just assumed I was somewhere just above the midpoint. That gap between the top 1% and top 5% is huge.

The whole conversation is really interesting on many levels.