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America's New Servant Class

Income inequality is creating a boom in the servant industry. Welcome to the world of Downton Abbey.

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Being a domestic worker has always a tricky form of employment, open to abuses. Historically, servants could not turn to the law to protect them until the U.K.’s Master and Servant Act of 1823, which influenced laws in other countries. It favored employers, but it was better than nothing, and included provisions for things like meals, clothing and shelter. In the U.S., the New Deal famously excluded domestic workers from labor protections and it remains a largely unregulated industry.

Immigrant domestic workers are especially prone to abuse because they are isolated and often do not know their legal rights. Undocumented workers are at the mercy of their employers, and some recent cases, such as the revelation of a Seattle man who kept a Filipina maid as a virtual slave, show how horrific conditions can be. In 2008, over a quarter of all maids and housekeepers in the U.S. were undocumented.

There shouldn’t be any stigma attached to service. Work is work, and being a chauffeur or a housekeeper is a perfectly dignified way to make a living. There is no reason why this form of employment should ever be insecure and underpaid. In the U.S., domestic workers have made strides in the battle to be treated like other employees. Last year California and Hawaii followed New York to become the second and third U.S. states to pass a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which covers cooks, waiters, butlers and some babysitters. Massachusetts may soon become the fourth. But there’s a long way to go.

In earlier times, people often preferred domestic work to dirty and dangerous jobs in factories. Those factory jobs only became more attractive when workers organized and won rights and protections. In addition to securing overtime, rest periods, medical leave, and other basic rights, expanding the social safety net and getting reasonable immigration reform would go a long way toward making the lives of domestic workers better. They are increasingly becoming the backbone of the economy, and it’s about time they were treated that way.

Lynn Parramore is an AlterNet senior editor. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of "Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture." She received her Ph.D. in English and cultural theory from NYU. She is the director of AlterNet's New Economic Dialogue Project. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.