The end of Downton but not necessarily the end of an era?


5 mins

Posted on 19 Oct 2015

As fans of Downton are all too aware, the end of the final season is in sight. What each episode reflects is the change in the employment opportunities for domestic staff in the 1920s. Grand country houses and estates which once provided jobs for life for large numbers of resident staff gradually became tighter ships. In 1911 a national census counted 1.3m domestic servants. Typically a large household employed dozens of staff including a housekeeper and a team of maids, a cook and her team of helpers, along with footmen and houseboys managed by the Butler. The loss of manpower resulting from the first world war, the invention of labour- saving devices and finally the economic impact of the Great Depression resulted in a significant reduction in domestic staff. Today even the very largest homes are only likely to employ a dozen staff at most whilst many of those are more likely to employ two or three multi-skilled individuals.

Downton Abbey ITVCould Carson be looking in the situations vacant column? 

Whilst we have never seen and never will see a return to the pre 1930s for household staff, there are still significant numbers of domestic staff employed in the UK. Investment in the London property by the super-rich is one reason for this. A survey by Wetherell, an estate agent catering to the international super-rich revealed that, in 2013, 90 per cent of the 4,500 people who own houses in Mayfair and 80 per cent of those who own flats have their own servants. However, it’s not just the super-rich who employ domestic help. According to the Work Foundation, there are now more than two million part-time or full-time domestic workers across the UK and 10 per cent of households now employ some sort of domestic help.

Employers obligations and domestic workers

Employers recruiting domestic workers need to carry out immigration checks to ensure workers have the right to work in the UK. One employer who, to his embarrassment, fell foul of this requirement is former immigration minister Mark Harper who resigned as immigration minister after it transpired that his cleaner was an illegal immigrant!

Today domestic servants enjoy many of the main employment protections, including protection against discrimination and unfair dismissal and the right to a statutory redundancy payment, if made redundant. They are also entitled to 5.6 weeks’ paid holiday a year, daily and weekly rest breaks and rest periods. The majority are also entitled to the National Minimum Wage (unless they live in their employer's family home, are not charged for food or accommodation and treated as part of the employer's family).  Their employer may also have to enrol them in a pension scheme and pay pension contributions. However, neither the 48 hour average weekly working time limit nor the restrictions on night work apply to domestic servants in a private household.

Recent cases

Nevertheless domestic workers are vulnerable to exploitation by their employer, particularly where they live in, as recent cases have shown. In Hounga v Allen, Ms Hounga entered the UK illegally from Nigeria to work as a housekeeper, having lied to obtain a visa. Her employer subjected her to serious physical abuse and threatened her that if she left and were found by the police, she would be sent to prison because she was in the UK was illegally. When she claimed discrimination, her employer tried to argue that her claim should be struck out because her employment contract was illegal (as she had no right to work in the UK). Her case went all the way to the Supreme Court before she was allowed to proceed with her claim.

Employers may also be familiar with the case of Tirkey v Chandrock where Ms Tirkey successfully argued that the race provisions of Equality Act 2010 protected her against discrimination on grounds of caste. However, they may be less familiar with the underlying facts and other claims she brought against her employer. Ms Tirkey worked as a live-in domestic worker. She was of the low Adivasi caste, or the servant caste, as it is sometimes known. She worked 18.5 hours per day, seven days a week. During four and half years of employment she was paid £3,140 and had one day’s holiday. She succeeded in claims for unlawful deductions from wages (due to not be paid the National Minimum Wage) , unfair dismissal, race discrimination, religious discrimination and breaches of the Working Time Regulations 1998 (failing to provide her with daily and weekly rest breaks and 5.6 weeks’ paid statutory holiday per year). The employment tribunal awarded her £183,773.53 in unpaid wages. Compensation for the rest of her claims will be decided at a further employment tribunal taking place in November.

In the days of Downton, domestic servants also received low rates of pay and very limited time off but they had little choice but to accept what was on offer. No doubt the rights of domestic worker today would cause Lord Grantham to choke on his consommé!

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