Monday, January 31, 2011

The hired help

Not long before I left Bogotá the last time, in March 2010, FOR (the organization I work with) found itself having to find a new apartment for its volunteers in Bogotá. One of the first things we put on the list of requirements for the new place was a permanent doorman. Though we had had a part time doorman (actually, a doorwoman) in the previous apartment, the apartment was robbed in 2006. It's still unclear exactly what happened, but it probably didn't help that the doorwoman was part time and all the neighbors had keys to the front door.

Having a doorman is not uncommon in Colombia. Many, if not most, middle class apartment buildings, and all upper class ones, do. Most also have empleadas: part-time, or in the case of many upper-class households, full-time, maids. So do all offices, including the office FOR shares with a Colombian NGO. Éxito, the chain store that I consider a slight nicer version of Walmart (though I’ve never actually been in Walmart so it’s just a guess), sells, next to the towels and sheets, uniforms for you to purchase for your empleada.

Despite doormen and empleadas being ubiquitous, I still don’t feel entirely comfortable having a doorman (note: I sweep my own floors). My little building employs two men who alternate shifts every 24 hours. No one besides them has keys to the front gate and door, so even when I come home at 4am after a night of dancing, they have to open the front door to let me in; I'm sure I have awoken them several times. I feel badly every time, but I have no other way to get in.

Some of my friends, however, argue that the whole system of doormen and empleadas isn't a bad thing, since it generates much-needed work, especially for the tens of thousands of displaced people living in Bogotá.

Perhaps that's true, acknowledged a friend of mine from another South American country who lives in Bogotá when we discussed the issue the other day. But, we agreed, that argument looses a lot of legitimacy when one considers how little doormen and empleadas get paid. According to my very unscientific study, empleadas make the equivalent of $15-20 a day.

This friend of mine grew up in a big South American city in a house that often had empleadas. But his family also had periods without empleadas, and he began to question the whole system during the times when he and his sister had to help sweep the floors, or when he noticed that, when there were empleadas and gardeners, they were made to eat off different plates than the rest of the family.

“Besides,” he says, “if I have a house that’s too big for me to clean myself, then my house is too big.”

In discussing our discomfort with having empleadas, we credited, in part, my being from the U.S. and he having spent several years living there, given that having household employees is far less common in the U.S. that in Latin America. But then I thought of people like Meg Whitman and the scandal with her former employee Nicky Santillan. Though Meg Whitman is way richer (and meaner?) than most people from the U.S., I have a sneaking suspicion that there has been an increase recently of people in the U.S. taking advantage of the growing presence of undocumented immigrants to hire cheap household help. Are we in the U.S. experiencing a reversal in the progression towards labor equality, in which having servants is becoming more common whereas in the rest of the Americas (well, minus Colombia) it is becoming less common?

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