Looking through interior images of houses, we often see grand bedrooms with an influx of natural lighting. We see inviting open-space living rooms, lush terraces, and kitchens with high-end equipment and refined finishes. But what we don't see is that behind these sleek walls are small neglected bedrooms without proper ventilation, natural lighting, or space to move around, dedicated to those who cater to the entire household.
The disparate spatial configuration and "colonial" approach to the living conditions of servants and foreign laborers have existed long before the rise of congested cities and micro-apartments. Household owners, or at least a good sum of them, have always felt that domestic workers needed and deserved less space to reside in, not just in terms of spatial area, but in terms of necessary living conditions for a better, more comfortable life.
As with most historic architectures, not many clear photographs or construction plans have remained for us to know the accurate living conditions of domestic workers. However, movies and TV series have given us a sneak peek into their world and their relationship with the space they live and work in. In historic films and TV shows, we often see them going up and down hidden staircases that lead to the kitchens, pantries, and stables, but rarely do we get access to how their quarters looked like and where were they located with respect to the rest of the bedrooms and facilities unless the storyline revolves around these workers specifically.
During the 19th century, houses and palaces in European countries allocated "servant" quarters in the basement, an entire floor plan with rooms and services, away from the sight of residents and their visitors. Their bedrooms were put beneath their private staircases, which they used instead of the main staircase of the house. Since maids were expected to work invisibly, their quarters were often completely secluded and detached from the main residential areas. They also had their own entrance to the house, often through a small door below street level if it was a townhouse, or through a private back door in the courtyard if it was a country house. In addition to their bedrooms, the servant quarters included a servant’s hall, a common room where the staff ate, gathered, and performed small daily tasks, which included a long table and natural lighting from skylights or elevated windows.
Mid-19th century residential buildings in France allocated maid's rooms, called Chambres de Bonne, on the roof. The rooms were built without bathrooms, had a separate entrance, and covered a floor space of approximately 7 sqm, a number considered illegal in today's construction laws of residential spaces. However, these rooms are now being rented as temporary bedrooms for foreign travelers on a low budget.
In South Africa during the 1950s, lower-class Africans were enduring crises of residential shortage, poverty, and starvation, which forced women to work as live-in housekeepers and caregivers for middle-class families. These workers resided in a space called the "backroom", a small detached unit - averaging at 2.5 x 3 meters - located in the backyard alongside other service facilities. The units were constructed with brick and concrete floors and did not have a ceiling nor electricity. It is believed that backrooms were hidden behind trees and bushes in the backyard to avoid any physical or visual presence.
With respect to high-density suburbs with large apartment buildings, live-in domestic workers resided either in basements or on roofs. The rooms were built in a corridor-like layout and only had enough space for a bed and closet, forcing the workers to share a communal bathroom. In the case of roof-placed rooms, workers were not permitted to use the elevator, so they accessed their bedrooms through separate entrances and external staircases. Similar to backrooms, these units did not have a ceiling as well, which made it difficult for workers to sleep at night due to external light sources from the street, neighboring buildings, or the moon.
Fast forward to the 21st century where people are more aware of social injustice, the living conditions of foreign domestic workers have seen an unprecedented decline, depriving them of basic human rights. Instead of a private bedroom, some domestic workers are now sleeping on mattresses or foldable beds in laundry rooms, storage areas, or walk-in closets. Many justify this configuration as a result of congested, high-priced cities with smaller-scale houses.
A survey conducted by the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME) showed that 59% of live-in domestic workers had no privacy whatsoever. 20% had surveillance cameras installed in rooms, and 34% did not have access to private storage units. In some countries in the Far East of Asia, domestic workers were forced to live in bathrooms, closets, and even on balconies. Although their work contract initially stated that they would be provided with suitable accommodation upon arrival, that was rarely the case. The NGO Mission for Migrant Workers (MFMW) drew attention to the living conditions of domestic workers in some countries in the Far East of Asia, highlighting the importance of prompt reforms on international labor and construction laws.
The same living conditions are found in countries in the Middle East, where it is considered normal for a middle-to-upper class household to have a live-in domestic worker. Workers employed in an apartment are given, if they are lucky, a small private bedroom that does not exceed 10 sqm (some maids have been given a 5 sqm bedroom). These rooms are always accessed through the kitchen, away from the other bedrooms and bathrooms. In cases where the worker is not given a private bedroom, she sleeps on a mattress in the kitchen, the living room, or shares a bedroom with the youngest child of the house (the pronoun 'she' was used because only females work as live-in domestic workers in the Middle East).
While awareness of the discriminatory living conditions of live-in domestic workers has been raised in several countries around the world, no definitive laws have been put in place yet. The problem could lie in the initial architectural layout of houses, the mindset of house owners, or the tenacious grasping of cultural norms. Is there truly a need for a live-in domestic worker if the house is not equipped to provide him/her with adequate living conditions? Is it a matter of "racial architecture" or a derogatory outlook on the type of work itself? Are house owners willing to dedicate a space of the house and transform it into a fully-equipped private bedroom and bathroom or do they expect the architect to do that for them beforehand?