Precarious employment Return of the Servants

Window cleaning and also a quick turn with the dog? “The new servants” have long been normal in German households.
Window cleaning and also a quick turn with the dog? “The new servants” have long been normal in German households. | Photo (detail): © VadimGuzhva/Fotolia

We all employ staff and seldom think about the consequences. In his essay “Return of the Servants”, Christoph Bartmann illuminates the world of the stressed middle class and that of their servants.

Christoph Bartmann’s essay criticizes the stressed middle class. Christoph Bartmann’s essay criticizes the stressed middle class. | Photo (detail): © Katherine Lorimer Mr Bartmann, we live in a society based on the division of labour. So domestic services are not a problem, are they? What is supposed to be wrong about employing a cleaning women or using delivery services?
 
The question is what sort of job description lies behind this? Is she the traditional “pearl” whom I still know personally? Or is she one of the new, platform-driven brownies whom I, the client, no longer know? These people are employed nowhere and crawl somewhere or other for the minimum wage. It’s an expression of increasingly asymmetrical conditions when we, who can afford it, resort to all sorts of services in such an unprecedented way because we need them or want to be more comfortable.
 
But what would we do without the babysitter, pizza delivery, au pair and caretaker? Most of us would now say things wouldn’t work any other way. Without the new service providers the middle class can’t organise its life.

That probably applies unfortunately for both sides. Many of the simple service providers don’t have any real alternatives but to do some kind of work for platforms. The other side, those who use these services, takes the view that life is sufficiently hard already. For example, care, care for the elderly, is an issue of immense importance. Most of us say: No way we can do that ourselves. At the other end of the scale, there are the convenience services: Why go to the kiosk to get chips for the night in front of the telly? The possibility of ordering chips per app exists. The supply generates the demand, and then you use it.

Poor social security

But again: where’s the problem?
 
The problem is that a growing number of often overqualified people, often immigrants, are stuck in simple services. The estimate is from twelve to fifteen per cent of the workforce. This includes not only close-to-home services but also security, guard services and building cleaning. These simple services are precariously organised on the whole: the employees have poor social security and no union organisation. Above all, there’s hardly any upward mobility, no scenario of social advancement. For young people of course there’s the lure of flexibility, but in the course of life this becomes a problem.
 
If there are no prospects of moving up, isn’t there at least the hope that simple work will soon be done by machines?
 
Hardly. We must assume rather that many middle class professions will disappear. The use of artificial intelligence will probably dispatch more of what is done today by lawyers than by cleaners. The machinery that is now on offer for maintenance and household chores is still pretty paltry. There are efficient robotic vacuum cleaners, but vacuum cleaning has always been one of the simplest chores. Is there a robot that can scrub? Scrub so long that the sink shines? In household work thoroughness plays an important role. Machines help little here. They have countless sensors that report things, but they don’t do the work. The question will be what robots can do in cleaning and in care. How affectively sensitive can robots dispensing care be?

“A bad conscience is helpful”

After we’ve read your book, we have to begin with a bad conscience. And then?
 
To begin with a bad conscience is helpful. I find it odd that we think so much about ecology, about ingredients in food and clothing, but spare hardly a thought for the new servants, for the new service world that is very unwholesome for many people. In some conversations I’ve noticed that women often respond nervously to the subject: Now you want to deny us the right to realise our professional ambitions, which we can do only if we can use (female) help. So a bad conscience is helpful; we should ask ourselves what’s preferable.
 
What could that be?
 
On the one hand, trade unions and co-operatives of course, and on the other hand the search for real technological alternatives.