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Servants, or the secret of middle-class life

Amid the constant talk of poverty and income inequality, one thing remains oddly missing: any substantive consideration of domestic servants. Domestic servitude is without a doubt one of the most enduring aspects of middle-class life. The daily work of drivers and maids reproduce and underwrite the quotidian reality of middle-class privilege.

But there is, to my knowledge, very little on the social history of domestic servitude in the Philippines. Neither has there been much sociological attempt to link the practice of rural migration with overseas migration along the axis of domestic labor. While there were manuals for dealing with servants written for American colonial and expatriate residents, there appear to be few codified rules or manuals of proper conduct for servants among Filipinos themselves.

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Rather, ideas about mastery and servitude exist as a set of common sense assumptions passed down from generation to generation, all the more entrenched because unspoken. These ideas go without saying, and so naturalize the relations of power and inequality that reside at the very heart of the home. The only time one hears talk of servants is when something is suddenly amiss: in cases, especially, of theft, when the servants are suspected of either having conspired in or committed the crime. Or when the servant literally leaves, and there is the constant problem of finding a substitute—a phenomenon that has been difficult in recent years with overseas work becoming increasingly more attractive.

Precarious life

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Last year, we witnessed well-publicized efforts to enact a minimum wage law for servants. The law also provides maids with some measure of protection from abusive employers. But the law notwithstanding, it is fair to say that for the majority of servants, life continues to be precarious. For the most part, domestic servitude is at once an essential yet largely unremarked aspect of the middle-class household. Indeed, middle-class life everywhere in the world has been predicated upon the production of this silence. Ideally, servants are supposed to be visible only in the ordered traces of their labor—the immaculate bathrooms, the well-prepared meals, the crisply-ironed bed sheets—while making scarce the bodies and lives from which such labor springs.

Domestic life as a realm of intractable inequality is not news for feminists. In the West, and in places that have been Westernized, the fight for women’s rights emerges as, among other things, a sustained repudiation of the fate of domesticity traditionally assigned to women precisely to the extent that it consigns them to a realm of subordination relative to men. The understanding and refusal of domestic work as the natural fate of women form the prerequisites for reclaiming equal rights in the case of liberal feminists. Yet, as many others have remarked, it is supremely ironic that women’s emancipation has often been accomplished by securing access to domestic servants, mostly other women of color or from the less developed worlds. The surge in overseas domestic work for Filipino women in many parts of the world has in part come from women seeking careers and working out of the home. Deconstructing domesticity does not lead to ending domestic servitude, but simply elaborating upon and refining its globalized and racialized aspects. And by encouraging Filipino women to go abroad to work as maids, the Philippine nation-state, one of the largest exporters of labor in the world, contributes to this globalization—some would even say trafficking—of servile bodies.

Talk of domestic servitude makes sense only in the context of anxieties about development and democracy. As the secret labor that makes up middle-class life, servants are excluded from democratic representation. While there seems to be a party-list group for just about any sector of society, none exists, nor is likely to, for domestic servants. Attempts at unionization are also unfeasible given the variable and often informal terms of their working conditions. Thus, the most potent weapon available to labor, the organized strike, is not available to them.

Welfare state

From the point of view of servants, they remain at the mercy of their masters. Some are lucky and find masters who are not only kind but also fair. In such households, servants are not only compensated well but also find themselves assimilated as part of the family, albeit as poor relations. Their spouses are often given jobs, their children sent to school, their medical bills paid. The household, in this case, works like a well-run welfare state, where the servants are provided with safety nets.

But even in these most ideal of situations, the servant remains vulnerable to the control of the master. Everyday forms of resistance are, of course, available. Servants can appeal to the master’s sense of moral superiority for cash advances or time off. They can resort to what slaves and servants have done all through history: gossip, back talk, work slowdowns, theft, and, when all else fails, flight.

Unlike the occasional work of fiction, however, there are very few recorded incidents of servants murdering their masters.

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Unlike slaves, servants are far less prone to rise up as a group. There has never been a movement to abolish servitude as there was to do away with slavery. The technological machinery and public services that might encourage the middle class to depend less on servants are also far from developed. Servants, for their part, tend to be complicit in their own subservience. Confronted with few opportunities, they find ways to reconcile themselves to their position. As with colonial society, the bourgeois household relies on the ongoing collaboration of those below with those above. To the extent that domestic servitude lies at the material and ideological heart of middle-class life is the extent to which efforts at forging a more egalitarian society—efforts led today by the middle class itself—will remain inevitably forestalled.

Vicente L. Rafael teaches history at the University of Washington in Seattle. He is the author of several works on the cultural and political history of the Philippines.

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