Who's serving who?

Cleaner, gardener, nanny - people are `staffing up' like never before. Only these days, the new servant classes are probably posher than you. HESTER LACEY reports

Scrubbing the bath, ironing the shirts, collecting the dry-cleaning, walking the dog, doing the school run, weeding the vegetable patch, waiting in for the gas man, taking care of your house/flat when you're on holiday for a week or two. Someone, somewhere, will take any or all of these tasks off your hands - for a fee. The word "servant" may have all but passed out of the language and the luxury of live-in staff remains the preserve of the well-heeled, but many households today rely on a support network of all kinds of peripheral paid helpers. The amount spent in this country on domestic help quadrupled in the Nineties to at least pounds 4.3bn a year - not including those who prefer to keep payments cash-in-hand to avoid the tax man.

Young professionals form the bulk of the new market - keeping up a career and having a life takes up quite enough time without cleaning out the fridge. And just as the employers have changed, so have the employees. The day of the haphazard charlady in sagging pinny is well and truly over. Today your domestics are likely to be well-educated, highly qualified, properly trained - in short, as professional as you are.

Hilary Lewis, barrister and legal academic, lives in south London with her husband and three children, aged 12, 10 and five. Her team includes two regular cleaners from the local branch of Molly Maid; the gardener, Perry, and his assistant, Monica; the regular babysitter, Bobby; and the shared nanny, J-J. Hilary sees her role as a managerial one. "It requires organisation," she says. "Plenty of women deserve an MBA in household management - if a child's ill, the whole structure can collapse."

Hilary believes that almost all households depend on some kind of support network, whether it be family, friends or someone down the road who'll let a delivery man in. "It all has to be formalised when the woman is out of the house," she says. During periods of working from home, she has also been glad of the contact with her helpers. "Working from home can be lonely, and having good relationships helps. A personal relationship grows beyond the contractual."

Having help means that women can be freed not only for work but for further education and training. "It's about the integration of women into society," she says. "It's not about laziness or `having it all'. It's about improving the facilities to cope with home life." Having help doesn't mean she gets to put her feet up either. "Once you take into account shopping, food preparation, ironing, making the beds, washing up - I never stop. My husband and children have to open the fridge and find there's milk in it."

Pam Bader, chief executive of Molly Maid UK, where Hilary found her cleaners, says that demand is "enormous". She puts the company's success down to the fact that they are as far from the char as it is possible to go. The Mollies turn up in uniform, armed with their own materials, and clean the house from top to bottom. Molly Maid's clients, she says, regard the service not as a luxury but a necessity. "During the recession we lost some customers, but as soon as things started recovering, they all came back. I think younger people are more used to service, and with our company they are selecting their cleaners with as much care as they would select their childcare, which is quite right when you think that people's houses are full of their most precious things."

Perry Wood, Hilary's gardener, runs his own company, Aspen Landscapes, and is similarly busy. He has plenty more clients in Hilary's area. He says he has never had to advertise. "It's all through word of mouth. My clients rely on someone who doesn't need telling what to do, who does what needs doing."

According to Lynn Brittney, author of the Which? Guide to Domestic Help, Hilary's household, with its web of servicers, is typical. "The massive increase in demand reflects the way society is changing," she says. "The market is predominantly young professionals, and the climate is much more entrepreneurial now. Rather than the cash-in-hand daily, businesses are filling the gap in a much more organised way, offering services like dog- walking, ironing, house-sitting." She herself employs a childminder, an ironing service and someone to do the heavy work in her garden. "If I didn't employ someone, the jobs wouldn't get done," she says. "I hate ironing, and I have a bad back so I can't do heavy digging in the garden. You can pick and choose the bits of housework you don't want to do - the services available are very flexible now."

It is a far cry, she says, from the days when a life of service was an alternative to education. "Today we demand that our childcare professionals are highly qualified - you certainly wouldn't treat them as your inferior. Cleaners are running their own businesses - before the war, you'd have cleaned if you couldn't read or write." Her own gardener is a retired bank manager. "Someone who comes into your house to do the ironing because they quite like ironing and want some pin money may well live in a better house than you do!"

CONTINUED FROM COVER

Dealing with someone who is washing your floor but is your social equal can be unnerving. One employer says she was alarmed to discover that her cleaner was in fact an East European engineering graduate, paying her way through a college course. "I didn't know how to treat her. I found it very difficult to tell her what to do because I felt she thought she knew everything already. In the end I'd try to be out when she came because she made me quite nervous." According to William Weber of Mrs Hunt's Agency in west London, many of the company's younger employees are "better educated than their employers. We get a lot of Polish applicants, for example, most of whom are graduates doing further study. Younger and more educated applicants do want to be seen on more equal terms with their employers."

Some of these trends may be less modern than they seem. Dr Edward Higgs, a historian at the University of Exeter, says that the role of managing the house rather than doing the work herself is an ancient one for women. The equivalent of the Which? Guide to Domestic Help, he says, would have been Mrs Beeton's chapters on the subject, which include pages of instruction on how to deal with staff. And, he says, while social divides were greater in the 19th century, there was still some rapprochement between employers and employees - and nerves about how to treat them. "Some servants were close to their employers and became almost like adopted children. And the lower middle classes had equally great problems in knowing how to treat their servants - there is endless advice in books like Mrs Beeton's."

However, according to William Weber of Mrs Hunt's Agency, which was founded in 1898, some things don't change. "In the middle classes there may be a marked step towards egalitarianism," he says. "But if you go up or down the social scale, or abroad, you might be surprised. And just because you are on Christian-name terms with your employees doesn't mean you are any more considerate." A typical example, he says, would be a City type in his mid-Twenties, earning pots of money, who simply forgets to pay his cleaning lady. "There is still plenty of that shocking arrogance," he says.

More information: Molly Maid UK (tel: 0800 500950); Mrs Hunt's Agency (tel: 0171 229 3506); Aspen Landscapes (tel: 0181 542 8584). The `Which? Guide to Domestic Help' is published by Which? Ltd, price pounds 9.99 - quote IOS99 (tel: 0800 252100).

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