1Drawing on a several-year field survey of home help workers in the greater Paris region, Christelle Avril sets out to “explore a world generally left in shadow” in sociology of the working class in France. It may seem questionable to draw a parallel between “service jobs” and manual labour, and it is precisely the relevance of this parallel that the book as a whole works to demonstrate. Avril delivers an ethnographic overview of home help workers – the vast majority of whom are women – that opens avenues for understanding female working-class experience in a new light, analysing service jobs as the new “face” of the working class and their world.
2In the first section, the author shows how from 1960 to 2000 home help gradually became professionalized. This development is reflected in labour agreements that defined the work as “performing material, social and healthrelated tasks” for older persons, and in the creation of a job qualification (though certification is not compulsory for practice). These changes brought about a shift in representations in France regarding this set of service jobs: they went from being “housework support services” to “home support services.” However, in the 2000s a turnabout occurred: home help personnel became “multivalent workers” who could be hired by “all types of users.” In this new definition of the work, the social and healthcare-related mission linked to population ageing has been dropped, and this in turn threatens the jobs of home help workers because state financial aid to dependent persons can now be used to pay a family member or friend for assisting the person in question. For Avril, this means that the “professionalising approach” of the 1980s has been superseded by a “familialist” approach, and one of its effects is to blur the occupational image these women have of themselves. At the end of this first section, the sociologist presents a three-category personal trajectory typology of the home help workers she met with: the “indigenous socially declassed”, the “mobile declassed” and those for whom the work represents “promotion.” Though all these women “belong to a heavily dominated social group [and are] similar in this respect to unskilled workers,” no “collective ‘we’” is clearly identifiable.
3The second section of the work focuses on the first group, “indigenous ‘declassed’ persons”, whom the author initially defines as women close to the stable working class who possess a degree of local social capital thanks to their parents and/or life partner. Overall, these women feel distant from their work and refuse – or at least say they refuse – to do tasks involving bodily care and relational or emotion work; they stress the physical aspect of the job and their ability to stand up to their hierarchical superiors – characteristics of the (male) working-class world. While they do not value their work, they have no plans of quitting because as they explain it, they have always worked. In contrast to the “mobile declassed” and “the promoted,” they are careful to have relatively regular working hours, thereby ensuring they still have the necessary strength and energy to do their own household chores. While Avril speaks of “a female version of virility,” these women are concerned to appear “feminine” at work. This means that the physical strength implied by their job (and that they stress in the interviews) is invisible outside the homes of the older persons they work in. This in turn enables them to maintain contact with small employers or heads-of-business and therefore to maintain the social status they had before taking a job in home help. In fact, these women originally had fairly close ties to small employers or heads-of-business, and they now find themselves caught up in a process of “repeat socialization” where their frame of reference proves to be the social milieu they used to belong to. These women are often “white”, have low educational qualifications often unrelated to home help work, and are integrated locally into social networks close to the traditional political right; they define themselves by opposition to women with general high school degrees on the one hand and their “black” and “Arab” female counterparts on the other. The homogeneity of their trajectories, their shared values, connected to the milieu they come from, and the representation they have of their job lead Avril to speak of a tight-knit labour group that recalls the solidarity and collective strategies characteristic of men in the world of manual labour.
4The third section of the book analyses the “mobile declassed” and the “promoted,” who, while belonging to different social and cultural groups nonetheless have similar representations of their jobs. Many women in the former category were born in France’s overseas départements or territories or outside France, or else to immigrant parents – this explains the author’s use of the term “mobile” – and they have acquired a certain cultural and economic capital from their families of origin. The “promoted” meanwhile, belong to the “proletarian stratum” of the working class; they have always been economically and culturally vulnerable and they see their entry into home help work as a social promotion. Often they are the family breadwinner. These two groups have a positive view of their work and stress the relational, “intimate” aspects of it, though these do not correspond to any official job qualification. They value tasks that they are neither paid nor trained to do, and they account in large part for the “flexibility” in this sector, as they are willing to accept irregular hours and last-minute calls to substitute. These women express pride in their work, their personal, individual investment in assisting older persons – an investment recognized both by the older person’s family and their employer. In this way they actually compete with their “indigenous declassed” colleagues and manage to hold onto their jobs. As Avril sees it, though they have a shared vision of the work, which in some cases stands opposed to the view of their indigenous counterparts, they do not constitute an identifiable labour group because they are not engaged in a struggle against their hierarchical superiors – on the contrary, they are allied with them – and their trajectories and economic wherewithal are quite diverse. Lastly, in direct contrast to their “indigenous” colleagues, they seem distanced from traditional gender roles, wearing pants and flat shoes, “bringing home the bacon,” intent on using any bonus money to “have a good time,” and they are considerably present in public space given how mobile they are.
5In this dense study of the world of home help workers in a city of the greater Paris metropolitan region, Avril enables us to break free of clichés, showing that home help work should be studied neither in terms of research on “domestic workers” or by analysing domestic chores versus care tasks. Instead home help work should be taken seriously as such, so as to renew and enlighten sociology of the working class, which can no longer leave aside questions of gender or interethnic relations. In this “important” work – qualified as such by Olivier Schwartz in his afterword – Christelle Avril calls for changing the “analytic frame of reference” in order to identify the changes under way within working class milieus and so to better define them.