Becoming the help: How do bodies matter in domestic work?

Imagine showing up for your first day of work, at the home of a middle-class or wealthy Ecuadorian family. You’ve woken up at dawn and taken an unlicensed cab, and then a bus to another bus, to arrive two hours later at the house you’ll be working in. You’ve left your family behind, either in your house on the periphery of the city, or in the countryside when you migrated to the city to find work. You’ll be cooking, cleaning, and/or caring for children or the elderly in a private home.

Domestic worker uniforms for sale in a Guayaquil grocery store.
Domestic worker uniforms for sale in a Guayaquil grocery store.

When you arrive at the house, you’re given a uniform. It’s scratchy, ill-fitting, and used. You’ll have to wear it in the street and when you go shopping, so that everyone will know you’re a maid. At lunchtime, you eat alone in a separate room, using dishes and silverware that are just for you, and will never be eaten off of by the family that employs you. The work is physically demanding, and may bring on a variety of ailments: muscle and joint soreness, dizziness or breathing problems from the cleaning chemicals, or even acute injuries. Yet you can’t get a day off to go to the doctor, and despite the fact that your employers don’t provide health insurance, they won’t help you pay for your medicine or treatment. They criticize you if you wear jewelry, nice clothes, or perfume. If you get pregnant, you’ll most likely lose your job.

And you’re one of the lucky domestic workers. You haven’t been physically abused or sexually accosted by your employer. You get paid close to the minimum wage and the family you work for doesn’t owe you months of back-wages. You don’t live in a closet-like room off of the kitchen.

In my article, “Embodied inequality: The experience of domestic work in urban Ecuador,” I present the accounts of domestic workers in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, with a focus on the ways in which their bodies are defined as “less than” in their everyday work lives. Because of the intimate nature of domestic work, a long tradition of unequal relations between worker and employer, and the racial and economic insecurity of the middle classes, employers have incentives to create and maintain physical distance from domestic workers. Dress, food, and health are three areas in which embodied inequality is evident in the stories these women tell about their work lives.

By Erynn Masi de Casanova on her article, “Embodied inequality: The experience of domestic work in urban Ecuador,” published in the August 2013 issue of Gender & Society

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