America's new servant class is like "Downton Abbey" — and not in a good way

Many people still think of household servitude as something belonging to a distant age. That isn't the case

Published March 7, 2014 2:05PM (EST)

                 (Masterpiece/Carnival Film & Television Limited)
(Masterpiece/Carnival Film & Television Limited)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNetIn America, many people still think of household servants as something belonging to a distant age, a time less equal and democratic than our own, like the Britain of "Downton Abbey." But as we’ve entered a second Gilded Age, the clock seems to be turning back, and the super-rich are increasingly relying on servants to feed, clothe and make them comfy. The economic "recovery" is not producing nearly enough jobs, but the servant sector is certainly growing.

Agencies are swamped with calls for butlers, chefs, drivers and other staff. What’s a private jet without your own flight attendant? What's a yacht without a massage therapist? According to Claudia Kahn, founder of a Los Angeles-based a staffing agency, the rich are requesting "'Downton Abbey'-type service” to match what they see on TV. She notes that a housekeeper for a zillionaire may earn up to $60,000 a year (the industry median salary is less than $20,000), but a “lady’s maid” can take in $75,000. Full-time butlers can earn $70,000 a year, and some who travel around with a family on yachts or private jets could earn as much as $200,000 a year.

Vincent Minuto, who caters to wealthy clients in the Hamptons, recommends one housekeeper for every 3,000 square feet of space. If you are timeshare mogul David Siegel, you’ll need at least 16 maids for your 50,000-square-foot home in Windermere, Florida.

In New York, would-be manservants can study culinary and laundry essentials in a course taught by Brooke Astor’s former butler, who plans to “revolutionize” the butler business by making students understand why a drycleaner can’t possibly do a proper ironing job. Steam presses are just so common! Across the pond, the number of domestic servants is also going through the roof. A recent study conducted by Wetherell, a real estate agent to the megarich, revealed that there are more servants working in the tony Mayfair section of London than there were 200 years ago. Ninety percent of the 4,500 residents who own houses, and 80 percent of apartment-dwellers have servants. Throughout the U.K., the demand for butlers doubled between 2010 and 2012.

The servant class has been growing over the last few decades for several reasons. For the middle class, the post-war program of husband working and wife staying home to vacuum and whatnot was the common, if not especially agreeable arrangement (as Betty Friedan memorably described in The Feminine Mystique). This was a departure from earlier times, when even lower-middle-class households often employed servants. In effect, technology and better job prospects for would-be domestic workers turned wives and mothers into unpaid employees responsible for all domestic duties.

But as women began to work more outside the home, and the hours worked for individual employees, particularly in the U.S., grew longer, households were thrown into chaos. Beds, after all, do not magically make themselves. The housework had to be done, and even when men pitched in, the truth is that both husband and wife were often working too hard and too long to properly attend to domestic chores. Despite a slight stigma in America linked to hiring domestic staff in the post-war period, part-time cleaners and nannies became the only way to restore sanity for many.

The most recent uptick, however, is more about income inequality. In places like the Middle East, as well as Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan, it has long been typical to import domestic workers from poorer countries. But that trend is spreading. In the U.K., it’s no longer Jeeves making the tea, but Vlad from Romania. In the U.S., the majority of maids and housekeepers are not native-born, with Latin Americans dominating the industry. (A big chunk of the wealthy is happy to support mass immigration of cheap labor so that these workers can continue to be underpaid.)

Being a domestic worker has always a tricky form of employment, open to abuses. Historically, servants could not turn to the law to protect them until the U.K.’s Master and Servant Act of 1823, which influenced laws in other countries. It favored employers, but it was better than nothing, and included provisions for things like meals, clothing and shelter. In the U.S., the New Deal famously excluded domestic workers from labor protections and it remains a largely unregulated industry.

Immigrant domestic workers are especially prone to abuse because they are isolated and often do not know their legal rights. Undocumented workers are at the mercy of their employers, and some recent cases, such as the revelation of a Seattle man who kept a Filipina maid as a virtual slave, show how horrific conditions can be. In 2008, over a quarter of all maids and housekeepers in the U.S. were undocumented.

There shouldn’t be any stigma attached to service. Work is work, and being a chauffeur or a housekeeper is a perfectly dignified way to make a living. There is no reason why this form of employment should ever be insecure and underpaid. In the U.S., domestic workers have made strides in the battle to be treated like other employees. Last year California and Hawaii followed New York to become the second and third U.S. states to pass a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which covers cooks, waiters, butlers and some babysitters. Massachusetts may soon become the fourth. But there’s a long way to go.

In earlier times, people often preferred domestic work to dirty and dangerous jobs in factories. Those factory jobs only became more attractive when workers organized and won rights and protections. In addition to securing overtime, rest periods, medical leave, and other basic rights, expanding the social safety net and getting reasonable immigration reform would go a long way toward making the lives of domestic workers better. They are increasingly becoming the backbone of the economy, and it’s about time they were treated that way.

By Lynn Stuart Parramore

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Alternet Domestic Work Downton Abbey U.s. Economy