The Idle Historian recently pointed me to a great BBC series on the lives of domestic servants in Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries. The three-part documentary is meant to “dispel the nostalgia and fantasies that we have around domestic service.” It is delivered with real passion by Essex University historian Pamela Cox, whose great-grandmothers were in service. With the popularity of shows like Downton Abbey and the new (and even more romanticized) Upstairs Downstairs, this is a good time to remember that life for domestic servants was extremely harsh and often cruel, with few rewards and none of the rights that other workers had (such as they were), not even the right to be addressed by their own name. It amounted to little less than slavery, with a touch of apartheid thrown in for good measure.
Servants were generally considered to be sub-human and disposable, which conveniently justified their extremely low wages and poor living conditions. Servants who were too sick or old to work (or had gotten pregnant, by whatever means) were simply turned out into the street. As Britain industrialized and other forms of work became available, workers (especially men) left domestic service in droves, causing the remaining servants to be squeezed even harder to make up the deficit. Attempts were made to force women into domestic service by denying them unemployment insurance. Employers lamented the “work shy” “servant class,” as though they were put on Earth solely to serve and were being perverse in refusing to do so. As education and employment opportunities improved, workers voted with their feet and servants became a thing of the past for all but the very wealthy, and even they had to grudgingly capitulate to the demands of the increasingly scarce domestic labour supply.
Lest we think this is all in the past and we know better now, the same thing is happening today. Employers in various industries complain that they cannot find willing workers and so they must import workers from abroad. The reality is that the jobs in question are too low-paid and unpleasant or dangerous to attract workers who have other options. However the experience in Britain shows that employers will never admit this. They will blame the “lazy” workers and do nothing to make the jobs more attractive and humane.
Indeed the British did also import domestic servants, including Jews fleeing Naziism who were forced into service no matter what their profession had been previously. This continues today with nannies brought in from the Philippines and elsewhere, some of whom are highly educated, and some of whom encounter conditions as harsh and abusive as their Victorian predecessors. These jobs were and are so bad that only the desperate will take them. What does that say about our society? Are we really classless when we have one standard for “skilled” workers and another for domestic or agricultural workers, or more to the point, one standard for ourselves and another for foreigners? What does it mean when we take advantage of poverty to lower wages and increase hours, either at home or abroad? Do we really believe in the inherent worth and equality of all human beings or only when it doesn’t cost us anything? Documentaries like this are not just a fascinating glimpse of the past but a mirror for the present and we would do well to look.