Cleaners and carers fight together in French protests
Women have put on yellow vests and joined the demonstrations, women who double-shift domestically and at work to keep the creaking social state going for modest wages, as nurses, home care assistants, nursery workers and cleaners, usually out of sight, in the background.
Their participation is not a surprise; women are most of the staff of many vital but invisible sectors in a neoliberal society. They care, educate, support, and clear up the mess. Without these basic services France would be paralysed. Who would take care of the elderly and babies? Not strike-breaking managers or the forces of law and order; police training does not cover spoon-feeding. Such tasks shifted over the last century away from family, church and charities, and now they are only noticed when they are not done. Demand has grown, but the workers’ resources have shrunk, and something has snapped.
Cleaners in hotels, staff in old people’s homes, hospital workers, all have joined in the bitter disputes since 2017, and often won.
In the 20th century, miners and assembly-line workers, the sole family breadwinners, symbolised work so powerfully that the working class is still associated with masculinity; ‘proletariat’ is much less likely to describe female workers. Male manual workers, long seen by the media as a vanished species, are still more than 20% of the workforce. But the feminisation of the workforce is one of the most radical shifts of the past half-century, especially at the base of the pyramid.
Women are 51% of France’s working-class labour; they were 35% in 1968. The number of male employees has scarcely changed, from 13.3 million in 1968 to 13.7 million in 2017, but female workers have increased from 7.1 million to 12.9 million over the same period. Almost all the labour force growth has been in women, who often have less job security and earn 25% less. The number of women in medical and social care and primary education quadrupled from 500,000 to two million between 1968 and 2017.
Just as the absence of unity hasn’t stopped the yellow vests from banding together, what divides female service sector workers is less significant than what unites them
In the 19th century, the industrial proletariat’s increasing power determined the strategy of the labour movement, but the huge growth of essential services staffed mainly by women, their potential power of veto and victories in social battles have not yet translated into political or union power. Yet the surface is cracking. In what circumstances could these sectors exert their as yet untested power? Can they create a cohesive group with strength to match its size, and build a social alliance capable of launching initiatives, asserting power and galvanising other sectors? The idea might seem far-fetched.
Female employees in essential services come from different social classes and work variously in the public or private sector, under diverse conditions, and sometimes in workplaces separated by considerable distances. But just as the absence of internal unity hasn’t stopped the yellow vests from banding together, what divides female service sector workers is less significant than what unites them.
A common enemy
The women from both the working and middle classes who maintain and regenerate the labour force (2) have weight of numbers and a common enemy. They provide services for private companies (182,000 cleaners), but mostly they provide services to individuals; there are 500,000 home helps, 400,000 nannies and more than 115,000 domestic workers mainly in private homes. The state employs 400,000 nursing auxiliaries, 140,000 nursery and healthcare assistants, and more than 500,000 other service personnel, not including administrative staff. There are a few male workers. This labour force does demanding shift work in difficult conditions, yet is undervalued and poorly paid.
Its members often work alongside intermediate professions in the key sectors of health, social services and education. The two million female workers in the ever-growing category of intermediate professions are better paid and qualified and have a higher profile, as nurses (400,000), primary or junior high school teachers (400,000), nursery nurses, community workers, special needs assistants, learning specialists and medical technicians.
There is a big divide between a nurse in a state hospital and an undocumented personal carer in a private home. But this disparate group which, including male workers, accounts for over 25% of the workforce, contributes to the production of the same collective resource and shares common features. The nature of personal services, care, social work and education means these jobs are not only indispensable but cannot be offshored or easily automated, as they require extensive human contact and/or individual attention. All these sectors are suffering under austerity; in schools and old people’s homes, working conditions are deteriorating and grievances worsening. The public regards these workers highly, as they can imagine life without heavy industry but not without hospitals, schools, nurseries and retirement homes.
A force for the future
This unique profile delineates a potential social coalition that could bring together working-class workers in essential services, intermediate professions in the medical-social and education sectors, and even some in higher-status professions such as secondary school teachers.
There are many obstacles, maybe because there have been few attempts to overcome them. Despite all the data available, no party, union or organisation has yet put this female, working-class demographic at the heart of its strategy, campaigned on its behalf, or prioritised the defence of its interests. Yet the best organised and most aware people in the labour movement in the railways, ports, docks, electricity and chemicals sectors know that they cannot forever bear the brunt of decisive social struggles, as the conflict over railway reforms in 2018 showed. Over 40 years, they have witnessed how those in power destroy their power bases, break their regulations, privatise their companies and eliminate their jobs, while the media thinks industrial labour is archaic.
Sectors staffed by women in care and public services suffer from an often low level of organisation and have only recently engaged in disputes; but they are growing, and in the public imagination occupy a space from which the working class have long been excluded: the future. While commentators on societal change praise or criticise digital platforms and Silicon Valley giants, the massive feminisation of the workforce is bringing about a change at least as disruptive as the ability to tweet pictures of kittens, especially as the trend may strengthen.
The US Department of Labor list of fastest growing occupations predicts the creation of jobs considered typically male, such as wind or solar power installer, oil rig worker, and programmer; but also jobs traditionally done by women such as home carer, care worker, healthcare assistant, nurse, physiotherapist, and occupational therapist. They estimate that a million software development jobs will be created by 2026 (which are likely to go to a predominantly male workforce), but four million home helps and care workers will be needed, on salaries 25% of those in IT (3).
Translated by George Miller
(1) ‘Enquête emploi 2017’ (Employment Survey 2017), Institut National de la Statistique et des Etudes Economiques (Insee); Données sociales 1974 (Social Data 1974), Paris (retabulated according to current classification).
(2) See Siggie Vertommen, ‘Reproduction sociale et le féminisme des 99%; Interview de Tithi Bhattacharya’ (Social reproduction and the feminism of the 99%), Lava, no 5, Brussels, July 2018.
(4) Vers l’égalité femmes-hommes? Chiffres-clés (Towards male-female equality? Key figures), French Ministry for Higher Education, Research and Innovation, Paris, 2018.
(7) François-Xavier Devetter, Florence Jany-Catrice and Thierry Ribault, Les Services à la personne (Personal Services), La Découverte, Paris, 2015.
(11) James Vincent, ‘Former Facebook exec says social media is ripping apart society’, The Verge, 11 December 2017.