Gods and housework

by Hayley Katzen

‘I HAVE NEVER used a vacuum cleaner,’ my ardently intellectual mother says proudly. ‘That was my condition when I agreed to emigrate to Australia.’

In the whites-only northern suburbs of 1970s Johannesburg, I too was oblivious to the demands of domestic work. My egg-yolk-yellow school uniform was washed and dried, ironed and hung up in my wardrobe. My toys were stowed away, my bed made. Hair from moulting lapdogs, confetti from the hole-punch, a broken glass and dust – all magically disappeared. 

Only when I stayed home sick from school did housework become visible. I’d hear the growl of the vacuum cleaner and smell the tang of disinfectant under the hand of Lena, Lizzie, Dora, Violet or Ellen, the Xhosa or Sotho women from the Transkei, Soweto or Meadowlands who worked for our family during my childhood. They dressed in pink, yellow or blue uniforms provided by my mother – these uniforms were always passive pastels, never a strong primary colour. ‘There were no other colours,’ my mother tells me. ‘The only uniforms OK Bazaars sold were pastel.’  

Last year after ‘cleaning out’ her papers, my mother sent me two large manila envelopes with old letters, reports, my Bat-mitzvah and vaccination certificates and the typed copy of a poem by South African playwright and director Barney Simon. On the back of the full version of this poem, in red pen, she’d scrawled, ‘This is such a moving, meaningful evocation of the South African horror.’

Madam, please –
before you shout about your broken plate,
ask about the meal my family ate.
Madam, please –
before you laugh at the watchman’s English,
try to answer in his Zulu language.

Madam, please –
before you ask me if your children are fine,
ask me when – ask me when I last saw mine.
Madam, please –
before you call today’s funeral a lie,
ask me why my people die.
Ask me why my people die.
Madam, please.

When I emigrated to Australia on my own in January 1989, the slights and accusations came thick and fast from my graduate law class and new ‘friends’. The gist was: ‘If you’re a white South African, you must be racist.’

I was ashamed of my background. Self-conscious. Horribly lonely – and determined to fit in to this new culture. I equipped my flat with mould destroyer, oven cleaner, sugar soap, gumption, a rainbow of sponges and steel wools. It was a steep learning curve. I followed the instructions on the oven cleaner carefully. As the chemicals stung my nostrils, I thought about Ellen and Dora. In the Transkei and Meadowlands there was no electricity. How had they learned to do all these jobs? 


FOR THE LAST decade, I’ve lived in a solar-powered cottage on a cattle farm in the Australian bush – nearest town Casino, the Beef Capital of Australia. As my partner Jen, a home-science teacher turned farmer, fishes a dusty ballpoint pen from under the couch, she says, ‘God can see under the couch, Hayley.’ Although playful, her tone is tinged with the scold of the home-science teacher. 

Guilty as charged. I’ve had years of practice at housework and have a definite ‘grot threshold’, but I’ll forget to clean the draining board and often don’t vacuum under the heavy furniture. And when Jen cleans? The plughole glints, even the air tastes clean. 

We’ve decided it’s hereditary – her mother was a homemaker who made marmalade and mustard pickles, and always cleaned under couches and behind doors. Fortunately Jen’s family has another expression: ‘Never use a broom after the sun goes down’.

I keep coming back to the notion of choice. Eating, drinking, sleeping – all obligatory. But would it kill you if you didn’t sweep and vacuum? Perhaps not, but if your home descends into squalor, you’re considered lacking in self-respect or mentally ill. 

Some call it uncivilised; some call it standards of propriety. Others chant ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’, which, I imagine, is the root of Jen’s family saying,‘God can see under couches and behind doors’.

In Marilynne Robinson’s magnificent book Housekeeping (Picador, 2004), the drifter, Sylvie, returns to Fingerbone to care for her nieces. But her housekeeping offends her older niece’s ‘sense of propriety’. The ladies of Fingerbone, ‘obliged to come by their notions of piety and good breeding’, pay Sylvie a visit. And what do they find? ‘The kitchen was stacked with cans, brown paper bags…and in the parlor, [the cats had] left [birds’] wings and feet and heads lying about, even on the couch.’

Picture those pious faces.

In the runaway bestseller Spotless by Shannon Lush (ABC Books, 2011), ‘Australia’s Queen of Clean’ describes in cookbook style how to deal with all things domestic from mice (pellets of snake poo from the reptile shop) to chewing gum on leather. Shannon also says that bicarbonate of soda, vinegar, water and sunshine are your most important products. 

Sylvie in Housekeeping also ‘talked a great deal about housekeeping’ and ‘believed in stern solvents, and most of all in air’.

Stern solvents. The language of cleaning is suffused with such sibilants: sweet-smelling, sparkling, shining, spick and span, spotless, ship-shape, sprinkle, scale, spray, scratches, scum. How apt given how housework is always lurking, slithering through our lives.

But the language of cleaning is also a battle cry. Cobwebs are sucked away, grease and grime cut through and erased. Mould is destroyed. Stains are removed. Cockroaches are lured and killed. 

Perhaps it’s this willingness to murder that distinguishes Sylvie from Shannon. ‘Sylvie in a house was more or less like a mermaid in a ship’s cabin. She preferred it sunk in the very element it was meant to exclude. We had crickets in the pantry, squirrels in the eaves, sparrows in the attic.’ When Sylvie swept, she ‘took care not to molest’ the leaves ‘some of them worn to a net of veins’. 


APPARENTLY SOME PEOPLE enjoy housework. Others see it as a meditation – like the monks’ sand mandala carefully created and then disrupted. But however you see it, there’s no doubt the rewards are transitory. No sooner is the housework done than red wine is spilt or dust invades unseen. Or the house burns down. Or we die. 

Little surprise few people want to do it and most people want someone else to do it for them. Even the Australian feminist T-shirt ‘Fuck Housework’ is not so much a call to squalor, as for decent pay for work done primarily by women.

Historically – and not just in South Africa, as my deeply ashamed self once believed – people have always had less privileged people do their housework for them and used justifications like, ‘without this job, they’d have nothing to feed their children’.

Of course Australia too has had a history of exploitative domestic and farm work: ‘...the greatest advantage of young Aboriginal servants was that they came cheap and were never paid beyond the provision of variable quantities of food and clothing. As a result any European on or near the frontier…could acquire and maintain a personal servant,’ Henry Reynolds wrote in With the White People (Penguin Books, 1990).

Later, when stealing Aboriginal children became official policy, the motivation was allegedly less about cheap labour than, as Sir Ronald Wilson, Chair of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Inquiry into the Stolen Generations, noted, ‘to strip the children of their Aboriginality, and accustom them to live in a white Australia.’ 

The practical reality of these assimilationist policies was that Aboriginal girls were sent to institutions like Cootamundra Domestic Training Home for Aboriginal Girls to be ‘civilised’ so that they could be prepared for work as ‘domestic servants’ in white Australian homes. Once again, unpaid or lowly paid domestic work in the name of propriety. 

SERVANTS. MAIDS. NANNIES. Charladies. The girl. The help. Foreign Domestic Helpers. Domestic Workers. Modern Slaves. 

The 2011 International Labor Organisation’s Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers acknowledges ‘the significant contribution of domestic workers to the global economy’. So it should. A staggering one fifth of the Philippines’ GDP comes from domestic helpers sending wages home, and in South Africa, where unemployment is 25 per cent, domestic workers account for 6.3 per cent of the labour force.

Whatever the era or country, implicit in the notion of domestic work is relocation. A woman, or young girl, leaves her home and family to work in another’s home where she cleans and cares for children. 

In apartheid South Africa, all black people had to carry a dom pass, that’s ‘stupid pass’ in Afrikaans, which gave their home address and employer’s details. If they couldn’t produce that passbook, those domestic workers in their pastel uniforms were thrown into the police van, charged, fined or imprisoned and then sent home.

In the triumphant final chapter of Robinson’s Housekeeping, Sylvie
and Ruth literally say ‘Fuck Housework’. They burn down the house:
‘Now truly we were cast out to wander, and there was an end to the housekeeping.’

But Sylvie and Ruth are unusual; most of us want a home. In 2011, a Filipino woman Evangeline Banao Vallejos, a mother of five who lived and worked in Hong Kong since 1986, challenged a Hong Kong law that prevented foreign domestic helpers from getting permanent residency, even though foreign workers are typically eligible for residency after living in the city for seven years. Daniel Domingo, another Filipino domestic helper who’d lived in Hong Kong for twenty-eight years, was the joint appellant. They won in the High Court. There was huge opposition in Hong Kong, and the government clung to ‘floodgates’ arguments, saying this judgment would lead to domestic helpers’ families moving to the already cramped city and putting a strain on the local economy and services. Ultimately, the Court of Final Appeal ruled against Vallejos and Domingo, and domestic helpers in Hong Kong must return to their country of origin at the end of their contracts.


AT HONG KONG airport in 2012, the tourist queue I stood in snaked an hour-long coil. To the left another cordoned-off queue moved quickly: it was specifically for foreign domestic helpers. There were three hundred thousand foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong, mostly from Indonesia and the Philippines.

On a Sunday, on the street outside the Armani store in Hong Kong, I noticed women camping on plastic mats or cardboard boxes. They chatted; they scooped curries from polystyrene buckets; they plaited each other’s hair; they read; they knotted string or wool to make handbags; they texted on mobile phones.

I had no idea why they were gathered on the pavement outside this store patrolled by a security guard. Were they waiting for something? 

I asked one woman, she smiled in response. Then I asked another woman who wore jeans and a T-shirt and was texting on her mobile phone. She told me she was a domestic helper and Sunday was the day she didn’t work and could meet her friends. They had nowhere else to go, apart from the streets. She worked for a family with two children, did the cleaning and looked after the children. I asked if she had children herself. ‘A thirteen-year-old girl. There is no work at home in the Philippines. This is the only way to get money for my family.’

Sunday is evidently the day most domestic helpers in Hong Kong have time off. It was the same in South Africa. Ellen, a Methodist, would dress in a red blouse and a black skirt; Lizzie wore a green felt badge with a Church of Zion star. 

This one day off a week only came to Singaporean domestic workers from 1 January 2013 – probably as a result of the 2011 ILO Convention that seeks to redress discrimination and human rights abuses. Article 10 states, ‘Weekly rest shall be at least twenty-four consecutive hours.’ Many Singaporean employers are angry with the new law. They’re concerned the domestic helpers will use their time off unwisely and have to be sent home.

Walking through Hong Kong’s Victoria Park on a Sunday, I found Indonesian women, many dressed in hijabs, camped under the trees around the park’s perimeter. Most of the women fanned themselves with little paddles made of thick card with plastic handles. The text on the paddle was Indonesian, but from the numbers and word ‘tarif’, advertising a mobile phone deal. At the tent bearing the phone company’s logo, I started a conversation with a young woman dressed in a white hijab with a sequinned edge. She told me she didn’t wear the hijab during the week.

‘Is that because of your employer?’ I asked, wondering if her employer allowed her to practice her religion.

‘No,’ she said. ‘It’s too hard to work in.’

Other women, I discover from an article published in the China Post, are banned from dressing according to their religion or praying in the homes where they work. I wonder why they don’t pray in their own room; surely they’d have a room like Ellen or any of the other women who worked for my family in Johannesburg? 

Not necessarily. The Hong Kong Government has a ‘Schedule for accommodation and domestic duties’ which acknowledges that ‘the availability of a separate servant room is not common’ but that Employers should provide the Helper with ‘suitable accommodation and with reasonable privacy’. The schedule gives examples of unsuitable accommodation: ‘the Helper having to sleep on made-do beds in the corridor with little privacy and sharing a room with an adult/teenager of the opposite sex’.

As for domestic workers practicing their religion, in 2012 the China Post reported that only a few thousand Indonesian domestic helpers were able to attend collective prayer rituals during Eid al-Adha, an important Islamic religious holiday. 

At the time there were some two hundred thousand Indonesian domestic helpers in Hong Kong, 90 per cent of whom were Muslim. 

AS A BABY, while my mother taught high school English, played tennis and bridge and lunched with friends, I was carried on Ellen’s back, secured by a woollen blanket. There I slept or watched as she pegged washing to the wire line behind the house, ironed sheets, washed dishes, made our beds, vacuumed the thick pile carpets, dusted bookshelves and polished silver.

Some mornings she’d put me down to sleep in her bedroom in the backyard of our two-storey house. Her single bed was up high on milk crates because of the demonic spirit known as the tokolosh – and perhaps because it gave her storage space. Her room was much smaller and darker than my own and furnished with a small table, two chairs and a dark wooden wardrobe with a mirror. 

Her son Vusi was born three years after me. He lived in the Transkei with his grandmother, while Ellen lived with us in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg. She had a day off during the week, two weekends off a month, four weeks’ leave a year and Vusi came to stay during school holidays.

Before we taught Vusi to swim in our pool, Ellen would say to me, ‘Watch Vusi, mbumbu. Make sure he doesn’t fall into the pool.’ 

Mbumbu means ‘my baby’. 

On our farm in the Australian bush there is, of course, no Ellen. On a visit back to South Africa my Aunty Sheila asked me to get the tub of schmaltz from the fridge. She was teaching me how to make kneidlach,

‘You can’t buy schmaltz in Casino,’ I said. ‘The only way I’ll be able to get it is if I render down some fat next time our neighbour kills chooks.’

Shaking her gold bracelet, my aunt said, ‘Much easier to go to the shop.’

So I tell her about the cherry tomatoes: how I wash them free of dirt, mash them, strain the seeds, cook them and bottle them in jars I label in black ink.

‘Oy,’ my aunt says. ‘You need someone to do your cooking and cleaning.’

As I beat the mixture of egg, matzah meal and schmaltz, I tell her about Jen’s cleaning standards – how God sees behind doors and under couches.

Aunty Sheila’s advice: ‘Just tell her, different God.’

Although Jen and I fantasise about employing a cleaner on the farm, there are all sorts of jobs we wouldn’t ask anyone else to do for us. Our toilet is a long drop (a hole in the ground) with a proper pedestal and seat, a bucket of sawdust with a jam tin scoop and a morning view of pink and grey galahs and wallabies.

Guests are given instructions on arrival: please no plastics or nappies down the hole because they don’t break down. So what? Well, once the hole is full, we move to the other hole. But first we have to dig out last year’s full hole. We fill at least eight wheelbarrow loads with this compost. 

We call it ‘taking care of our own shit’. Maybe it’s also atonement for my South African childhood.


MY EIGHTY-YEAR-OLD mother expertly uses a mobile phone but still no vacuum cleaner. Michelle, who migrated to Australia from the Philippines, comes for four hours once a week to vacuum, mop, clean and iron. By Australian standards, my mother is unusual. According to time-use analyses conducted by Professor Lyn Craig, an ARC QEII Fellow at the Social Policy Research Centre, University of New South Wales, only 8.4 per cent of Australian households employ a cleaner. Even in high-income households, 85 per cent of Australian families do their own cleaning, although meal preparation, laundry and mowing are often outsourced. 

So is this a result of financial constraints or cultural attitudes? After all, unlike Hong Kong and Singapore, Australia has no employment scheme for foreign domestic workers. When I raised this statistic with my born-and-bred Australian friends, one who works as a cleaner said she’d rather be working in a flower shop but jobs are few in our area, another said she cleans motel rooms because it’s hard to find consistent work cleaning private homes. Other friends, some who worked as cleaners during student days, said ‘why would you pay for what you can do yourself’ or ‘others don’t clean the way I want it done’; others were concerned about theft or didn’t want strangers in their ‘space’; and others who were focused on cost said, ‘the money’s better spent elsewhere’ or ‘I would if I could but it’s just too expensive’. 

University of Queensland researchers Janeen Baxter, Belinda Hewitt and Mark Western, in an article for Feminist Economics, found that affordability and efficiency influenced choices about employing domestic workers. But they also found cultural views about the appropriateness of paying for such work rather than doing it oneself play a pivotal role. Women with the ‘do it yourself’ attitude were no more likely to employ domestic workers if they worked longer hours. 

Australians are uncomfortable and embarrassed about someone else cleaning their bathrooms and bedrooms; they often feel that they have to clean up before the cleaner. And if you do get a cleaner, well, don’t tell anyone. 

Ah, so there it is again, that sense of propriety.

Shannon Lush knows her Australian audience. In Speedcleaning (ABC Books, 2006) she advises ‘what to do about unexpected visitors’ when your house has that ‘lived-in homely look’: keep a cloth impregnated with lavender oil near the front door and wipe over the edge of the door before opening it. ‘The smell creates an impression of cleanliness.’ She also suggests placing your washing-up gloves over the pile of dirty dishes ‘to suggest you were about to wash them if you hadn’t been interrupted by your visitors’. 

Scornful laughter? Even so, how much of your grot are you willing to show? 

Like personal hygiene, housecleaning is private. Invisible. Cleaning products are stowed out of sight and advertisements for them haunt daytime television rather than peak viewing times. 

This may be an extravagant extension to the researchers’ findings, but I wonder if this Australian sense of propriety points to a deeper privacy concern. Domestic workers witness a family’s struggles and secrets. Maybe Australians don’t want someone else living in their homes, seeing into their families. Home is sacred.


PERHAPS PRIVACY WAS not so sacred in the South Africa of my childhood. Every time I visit South Africa, Ellen tells me stories about my family during my early years. I know now about the lipstick on my father’s collar in the year before my parents’ divorce and how Ellen laundered it clean without my mother’s knowledge. 

Ellen left our house when I was twelve. I wept. She said she was pregnant. She wasn’t. She didn’t like the way my stepfather and stepbrother talked and bullied my mother and me. She didn’t like how they spoke to her. She didn’t like what she saw. 

What a position to be in: to live in another’s home where even if you don’t like something, you are not able to say.

Ellen was seventy-eight when I last visited South Africa. On arrival, I telephoned the house where she’d worked for the last twenty-six years. She’d retired a few months earlier. ‘It was time,’ Irene her employer said. ‘I had to get someone to clean for her.’

A week later Ellen told me to meet her at Irene’s house where she’d be making kneidlach and gefilte fish for Pesach. As we sat together on Irene’s leather lounge, Ellen told me that she has a room in a cousin’s house in Soweto while she waits to get her own house. Twelve years ago she applied for a three-bedroom house in Soweto so that Vusi’s teenage sons could live with her. Vusi died fifteen years ago; Ellen told me it was ‘pneumonia’ that killed him. His wife died soon after, also ‘of pneumonia’. 

‘They give the houses to the Nigerians, mbumbu,’ Ellen said, rubbing her thumb against the pads of her forefingers. ‘Too much corruption in this country.’

Ellen has a rural block of land  in the Transkei and some money in her bank account, but she believes she’s entitled to a house in urban Soweto under the Government’s Reconstruction Program. 

‘I’m a citizen of South Africa,’ she tells me. ‘They must give me a house.’ 

Ellen has cleaned and cooked and raised children in the homes of middle-class, Jewish, white families for fifty-five years. She has savings, but not a home of her own.

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 45: The Way We Work © Copyright Griffith University & the author.