Dissertation Abstracts

The Heart of the Affair: Contemporary Disputes in Domestic Service Employment Relationships

Author: Abrantes, Manuel , mabrantes@socius.iseg.utl.pt
Department: Social Sciences
University: School of Economics & Management, University of Lisbon, Portugal
Supervisor: Sara Falcão Casaca (University of Lisbon) and Sarah van Walsum (VU Amsterdam)
Year of completion: In progress
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: domestic work , gender , class , migration
Areas of Research: Work , Women in Society , Migration


The contemporary features of paid domestic work have been recently documented in a variety of geographic locations, with a notable emphasis on the recruitment of immigrant women to perform cleaning and care tasks in affluent households. This dissertation begins with a review of the existing scholarship on the subject, followed by a discussion of Portugal – and, in particular, the urban area of Lisbon – as a critical case for the empirical examination of domestic service employment relationships today. A complex analytical framework is proposed based on three concomitant processes of structuration in this sector: negotiation, reorganization, and intermediation.

Analysis draws on legal documents, official statistics, and a total sum of 77 semi-structured interviews with domestic employees, private employers, company managers, and members of labour, employer, and activist organizations. Fieldwork took place in Lisbon between 2011 and 2013. The discussion of data covers the content of the work, working conditions, the changing quality of employer-employee arrangements vis-à-vis social hierarchies of class, gender and ethnicity, and the role of a number of institutions engaged in the mediation and transformation of domestic service employment relationships.

While working conditions are found to be substantially heterogeneous and segmented, the overwhelming recruitment of women in this sector remains key to concealing lingering gender asymmetries within households and society at large. The expected transition of domestic service from a paternalistic model to a commodified model – or from a class status to an employment status – is described as gradual and contested at best. Men are still largely absent from the picture; migrant women still take up many of the least desired positions, particularly as 'live-in' direct care providers; symbolic hierarchy and emotional hostage remain. Nevertheless, the efforts of domestic employees to transform the rules of the game – both individually and through collective organization – have multiplied and gained strength.

This work is supported by the FCT - Foundation for Science and Technology (SFRH/BD/61181/2009).

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