Too Posh To Wash?

-By Joanna Roughton

Is cleaning a moral virtue?

If there is an answer, then it is to theologians or ethicists that we might be tempted to turn. But it is a question with growing real-world relevance and, as such, it is something which affects us all.

I say this in light of the latest row in Britain regarding standards of care in NHS hospitals. There is a raging debate within nursing about whether some of our nurses, many of whom now have degrees, are “too posh to wash”. The theory, and that is all it is since proof would be impossible to come by, is that highly educated staff see mundane domestic tasks as beneath their pay grade. And here lies the rub, if you’ll excuse the pun. Since it is in the exercise of these very tasks that an intimate relationship between a carer and cared for, begins to take shape. 2

When we wash someone who is bed-ridden, we are involved in an intimate encounter. It requires, by its very nature, tenderness and frank communication. There can be no standing by the door, barking instructions. A carer who also cleans must, necessarily, be up close and personal. So cleaning, in the caring context, might be seen as morally, as well as pastorally, virtuous. But it might be possible to extend that analysis. On the macro scale the act of cleaning connects.

When I pick up my brush and sweep the yard, I am forming an invisible bond with all those people – predominantly women – for whom such tasks remain a daily necessity. It is brief opportunity to live out a universal and global human experience. One which provides a nexus, not only with the somewhere else, but another time too. As long as there has been dust, there have been cleaners! And on the micro scale, cleaning can be seen as a act of goodness. 3

Sometimes housework is presented as a straightforward binary choice between home and work. But this is to ignore an obvious, but frequently overlooked, third choice. It is entirely possible to elect to stay at home and do little or nothing. There are many men and women whose lives would be given form and structure, if only they could find the discipline needed to do the housework.


The ‘Living Wage’ passes by those who make Living Progress

-By Joanna Roughton

Do you remember the original ‘Living Wage’? You have to be of a certain age – in excess of 40 – to remember a time when it meant something very different to what it does now. Here, in 2013, it is used by politicians in a modern unisexual context. In short, a wage that a person can reasonably live on, once all their outgoings are taken into account.

But, back in the Life on Mars world that was 1970s Britain, the Living Wage was part of a slogan used by the trades unions to mean the pay a working man had to bring home to support his wife and children. It was about as liberated as Andy Capp. Slowly, the Living Wage left the argot of industrial relations as the unions found themselves representing more and more working women. It is interesting that it is now re-appearing, with its gender specific heritage expunged.

Yet, if you are, like me, a once-working woman who has decided that running a family home warrants a ‘living wage’, you will find that this re-booted debate about how we value the work of women is poised to pass you by.

In fact, and I blush to say it, the old settlement suited me and others like me, better. Back in the Dark Ages of Blue Nun, Ford Cortinas and sheepskin coats, the Living Wage was inherently geared to a society which understood that a home-maker needed support and recognition.

All the major organs of state – the Treasury, employers and trades unions – recognised that, in terms of labour relations, the basic unit of economic production was a working man. And there was an implicit understanding in that solitary metric. A working man came with strings attached. There was his stay-at-home-wife, and his dependents. These were usually children, but often an elderly relative too.

Now, in these austere times, that might seem like an Atlas-like act of heavy financial lifting. But, back then, the biting winds of global competition were yet to arrive and it was possible (just about) to have a productive economy, capable of supporting an NHS, Welfare State, Armed Forces and the rest of it, on a fiscal model where only men were employed.

That has all changed. And let’s not pretend it is all because the political class and big business have decided that they want to work everyone – men AND women – harder. Many women saw home-making as domestic drudgery. A prison cell (Cell Block-H anyone?) they could not wait to escape.

The unions have responded to that and, indeed, some of our biggest now rely on a majority female membership (the first woman to become TUC General Secretary, Frances O’Grady, was elected last year).

But, in their haste to revise what a Living Wage means, they have shown cloth-ears to those capable of producing the least noise – the women left behind by the rush to earn. Those who want to exercise a choice about how they serve the common good.

And, of course, part of the problem is that we cannot apply the yardsticks of cash to running a family home. There is no such thing as Performance-Related Parenting. No well-funded policy research department is crunching the statistics to work out how much money the country could save on expensive social care if only we gave a little bit of help to mothers who look after elderly relations at home.

The great Working Woman juggernaut will brook no opposition. The modern feminist war-cry is founded around the idea that without a career a woman is nothing. Whisper nostalgically about MIRAS – a tax break for stay-at-home-mums abolished by Gordon Brown – and you will be pigeon-holed as a swivel-eyed nutter. Cite evidence about Attachment Theory and the improved outcomes for children whose early years are spent being brought up by their actual parent, and you will be dismissed as a denier.

The semantic journey of the Living Wage, as it has come to be understood, tells us a lot about the direction of travel of modern socio-economics. The state no longer values the efforts of women who do not pay tax. It prefers to contract out child-rearing where possible and looks blankly at the idea that a well-run home can have social goods that are not immediately obvious. The passage of time is not the same thing as progress.