As a longtime reader of The Nation, I’m interested in their new advice column with a great name, Asking For A Friend, with columnist Liza Featherstone. The second question in the inaugural column fits well with this blog’s focus:
My roommate is a slob, and I don’t like cleaning up after him. The problem is, neither does he. When I suggested splitting a cleaning service, he told me the ones I researched—worker cooperatives with good labor practices—were too expensive. Then, without asking me, he used Handy.com, a cheap start-up, before I could ask him to cancel. How should I handle this situation?
—Resident, Pigpen or Sweatshop
Partly because so much household labor used to be performed by slaves, domestic workers—nannies, housecleaners, and home healthcare aides—have been deprived of even the minimal labor protections accorded to most other workers under the law. They have therefore had to depend heavily on the good intentions of people like you.
The National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) is the major national organization working to reform this industry. Another group, Hand in Hand, helps employers who want to treat domestic workers better but don’t know how to go about it. This organization’s website has terrific guidelines on wages, time off, and other matters to consider when your home becomes someone else’s workplace.
Reading Hand in Hand’s guidelines, I was struck by how much this voluntary reform effort depends on the employer and the worker having an ongoing relationship. The parties are advised to work on communication. The boss is advised to provide paid sick days, vacation time, and regular raises. Handy, an app to summon household help (Uber for domestic work), is antithetical to such well-meaning efforts. The customer, who swipes to summon a maid for a onetime job through Handy, not only doesn’t feel obligated to provide any of the benefits recommended by Hand in Hand, but structurally can’t.
What’s more, workers have sued that company for treating them as employees (dictating what they wear and what they say to clients) while also categorizing them as “independent contractors” so they won’t be entitled to any stability or benefits.
You can also tell your roommate that Handy gets terrible reviews on iTunes; even the convenience doesn’t seem to make up for the aggravations of bad service.
While the sharing economy is rife with exploitation now, domestic workers and their advocates don’t reject the possibility that such technologies could be made to benefit workers as well as customers. The NDWA has a department of “social innovations” working on ideas for making the sharing economy more just, and it hopes to persuade companies like Handy to endorse a code of conduct. And professors Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider—not to mention Mike Konczal in these pages—have been arguing that the sharing economy lends itself to a worker-cooperative revolution.
At present, though, you are right to avoid Handy, and your roommate is wrong to use it. The best way to find a cleaner is by supporting the movement for workers’ rights at the same time: hiring someone through one of the worker-run hiring halls affiliated with the National Domestic Workers Alliance (domesticemployers.org has a list).
But also we need to talk about your relationship with this roommate.
Sure, some of us are cleaner than others, but I’m distressed that he made an important household decision without consulting you—especially one that he knew you wouldn’t approve. A friend of mine just ejected her roommate for leaving moldy dishes in his room and other degenerate behavior, but to me your roommate’s conduct is even worse. If you’re the one on the lease, try once more to explain what you need: He must clean, or allow someone else to be fairly compensated for doing so. If he won’t do that, kick him to the curb.