CFP 49th Linz Conference 2013, Towards a Global History of Domestic and Caregiving Work

49th Linz Conference, incl. Workshop for Junior Researchers
Towards a Global History of Domestic and Caregiving Work
12-15 September 2013

Organized by International Conference of Labour and Social History (ITH), in cooperation with the Institute of Economic and Social History, Univ. of Vienna, the International Research Center “Work and Human Lifecycle in Global History”, Berlin, the International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam, and the Arbetarrörelsens arkiv och bibliotek, Stockholm.


The conference focuses on the global history of domestic workers in private homes, a labour market that over time has included, in addition to physical labour, care for infants, children, and the elderly (“emotional labour”).

Work done outside of homes in (small) business or caregiving institutions (hospitals, old people’s nursing homes) will be the topic of a later conference. Domestic work, now usually designated as “domestic and caregiving” work, has also been assigned to men in the racializations that (colonial but also postcolonial) societies imposed on men of colours-of-skin other than white. Work in households other than one’s own is not only a global phenomenon with area-specific variations and regimes, it is also one with a history extending over centuries and changing over the ages, e.g. the shift extended families – nuclear families – dual-income families. Migration of women to such service positions is not as new as some observers claim. Nevertheless, the social sciences have failed to develop analyses with both long-term historical and global perspectives. The recent ILO Convention “Decent Work for Domestic Workers” (2011) is the first international agreement in which domestic workers had a voice.

In the last decade research, esp. feminist research, has increasingly paid attention to the global history of domestic employees (“servants“) and to caregiving in private homes. These workers, the vast majority of whom have been women, have always been especially exposed to employer arbitrariness and have had a particularly weak negotiating position. Their working conditions were and are usually hidden behind the walls of the “private sphere.” Conditions and positions vary depending on societal structures for example between Latin America, China, and Europe. The history of domestic workers is and always has been a history of migration. While the migrant status has often been used to explain the neglect of these women in the history of the labour movement, working in the households of strangers and migration for household labour has, in fact, a far longer history than the industrial labour movement. Research needs to include free and unfree workers, live-in domestics and service personnel with their own accommodation, men and women, adults and children, but not apprentices in workshops that are housed in masters’ homes.

“Towards a Global History of Domestic Workers and Caregivers” in long-term perspective aims at developing an analysis that, by bringing this neglected category of working women and men into focus, will contribute to a new, comprehensive history of labour. What are the similarities and differences both between the world’s regions and over time from the early modern to the modern period? What transfers occur? Present-day domestic work will form the core of the analyses but a historical approach is indispensable. Presenters from across the globe will help avoid a Eurocentric focus.

1. Section: Domestic work and caregiving labour in the households of others – changing definitions and concepts
Conceptual and social historical introduction to the conference theme und the development since the mid-19th century and, perhaps, comparatively the early modern period, including references to slave labour; a survey and analysis of the multiple societally-structurally differentiated forms of domestic and caregiving work; analysis of its role in the political economy of societies with examples from major regions on different continents. This survey needs to incorporate attempts to professionalize the sector at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century in view of both labour shortages and mechanization of household tasks. For the present the assembly-line-type time and motion studies of care work and the concomitant dequalification need to be discussed.
Continuities and discontinuities of definitions and terms will be discussed in a global perspective.

2. Section: Changing division of labour – the relationship between workers and employers in private households
The core question remains: Who works for whom? How did the constitution of power relationships regarding gender roles and ascriptions, of ethnicity and class, change over long historical periods? How do such power relationships emerge and how are they perceived in global perspective? How may the concept of “Otherness as a resource,” as an entry-gate to bordered wealthy societies, be included into the analysis? How did working conditions and employee-employer relations adapt to the change from private contracting to profit-oriented agencies and large domestics-supplying businesses? This Section’s goal is a discussion of the global division of labour and global inequality as regards reproductive labour in a long-term historical perspective.

3. Section: Working conditions and reasons to seek and accept work in the households of others
Working conditions for domestic and caregiving workers are often described as degrading. But many similarities notwithstanding, attention needs to be paid to variations over time and space. Work in the context of live-in arrangements may make sense as cost-saving arrangements – especially for migrants who need to defray the cost of migration and who need to acculturate. Migration may be intended to improve the financial situation of the respective worker’s family, it may be an opportunity to sponsor migration of the family, or it may be a strategy to escape from extremely unequal gender hierarchies in the society of origin. While such work may be seen as dirty and degrading, it may also be perceived as well-ordered, gratifying, and satisfying, or as doubly exploitative physical and emotional labour. Such work may have to be accepted under duress or force, it may be wage-work without emotional attachment, or it may serve as training period. Some live-in employees experience lifelong dependency and exploitation, others assume positions for a limited period of time to prepare for labour in and management of their own households. Working conditions vary between live-in service and daily commuting to work either from self-rented accommodations or the employees’ own family household. Migrations may involve intra-regional or transcontinental moves; they reflect both dynamic and ossified (micro-) regional and global divisions of labour. It is the goal of this Section to analyze the broad range of motivations and life-projects of domestic workers in global perspective as well as the role and impact of state and international regulation in the legal and political sphere.

4. Section: Mobilization – resistance – organization
The history of the labour movement has long regarded political and trade union mobilization of workers in the domestic sphere as weak or non-existent since processes and organizational structures usually did not correspond to those of the industrial, male unions. Like proletarians in factory labour, domestic and caregiving workers often have no other options or means to feed themselves and their families. But the latter are subject to particular constraints due to the intimate relationship of the secluded home, to the walls separating the “private sphere” from outside scrutiny. For domestic and caregiving workers resistance against unacceptable working conditions often involves resistance against unacceptable living conditions. What types and patterns of resistance emerge over time? How do groups of workers, especially women, mobilize and organize to improve their working conditions? What is the impact of global networking?
Thus this conference expands the traditional history of both the classic labour movement and the history of male and female working-class culture in the productive sphere by incorporating the reproductive sphere – including care for children and the elderly (“emotional labour”). Work regimes range from paid to enslaved household work. The overall goal is an inclusive gendered history of men’s and women’s work in the inextricably entwined spheres of productive and reproductive work.

Call for Papers
Proposed papers need to address the above conference topics and have to include
– abstract (max. 300 words)
– biographical note (max. 200 words)
– full address and email-address
– the targeted thematic section and workshop or conference.

The workshop, 12 Sept. 2013, is intended for ongoing research on the level of doctoral dissertations.
A special effort will be made to include papergivers from all regions of the world.
The organizers hope to be able to reimburse travel costs, grant applications are pending.
Proposals to be sent to Silke Neunsinger:

– Submission of proposals: 1 Sept. 2012
– Notification of acceptance: 1 Oct. 2012
– Deadline for full papers: 1 Aug. 2013
– A publication of selected conference papers is planned, final manuscripts due 1 April 2014.

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