Domestic workers at a remittance agency

In early June 2020, former president of TWC2 John Gee wrote to the Sunday Times explaining why the term “helper” is, well, unhelpful, when referring to foreign domestic workers. So far, this letter has not been published and by this point, we feel we can put it here instead.

Regular readers of this site might have noticed that at TWC2 we do not use the term “helper”. His letter explains why.

Dear Sunday Times,

Paige Parker (“In Praise of Helpers”, Sunday Times, 31 May 2020) presents very persuasive arguments for more considerate treatment of domestic workers that I hope that anyone concerned for their well-being would support. However, on one point, I have to disagree.

This is about the use of the term “helper”, which has come into fairly common use in recent years. Ms Parker considers this term to be preferable both to “maid” and to “foreign domestic worker”. “Helper” is a term with which a lot of employers feel comfortable, but there are good reasons to prefer the latter.

In the first place, “helper” is simply inaccurate. In the domestic context, it suggests a secondary role to those who do most of the work. When a child helps parents to handle domestic work, it is clearly the adults who are doing most of the work and the child relieves them of specific tasks or parts of a task. However, in the vast majority of homes where they are employed, domestic workers do all or almost all of the housework, plus handle care responsibilities. In these circumstances, “helper” radically understates the role played by domestic workers.

More importantly, the term “helper” obscures the actual employer-employee relationship and tends to excuse the prejudice against counting housework as work of real value that Ms Parker rightly faults in her article. To assert that the millions of people who work in wealthier people’s households are workers is to affirm that they should be regarded as people who have a right to decent pay and similar labour protections and rights as other workers. This is a point upon which organisations representing domestic workers around the world insist, and they are unanimous in describing themselves as workers, not helpers, as a result.

Yours faithfully,

John Richard Gee