Morality – Drugging the Cleaner (Part 1)

23 01 2010
Author: girlwithoutawatch
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


Emma Lazarus, 1883 (i.e. poem engraved over NY’s Statue of Liberty’s main entrance in 1945)



I have a cleaner who comes once a week to clean our home. She is very good: She cleans well, is reliable and takes pride in what she does.

Like most cleaners I have come to know over the years, she has a history of hardship, lives very much on the edge in terms of financial security and resides in the UK illegally—no papers, no social support network, and no free medical care.  In order to come here, she was forced to leave her son with a friend. He was only one-year old at the time.  She has not seen her son in eight years.

She was married twice and widowed twice. Both her husbands were shot dead: according to my cleaner, her first husband was an innocent bystander (in the wrong place at the wrong time) but her second husband, the father of her child, had become involved in criminal gang activity. He died shortly after the birth of their son.

Like many urban slums, gang activity was rampant and most residents lived in fear so she decided to move to another town, where she had a friend, to pursue employment and find a safer environment for her son to grow up in.  Unfortunately, she never found work in the new town and simply could not support her son financially.

According to my cleaner, there have only been two women who she ever felt she could count upon: the aforementioned friend with whom she left her son and another woman who had made it the UK illegally.  The woman who had made it to the UK was fortunate enough to attain refugee status and is free to work and benefit from the British welfare system.  This woman convinced my cleaner to make the nerve wrecking voyage across the Atlantic.

Like many, the goal for my cleaner was to get to a place of opportunity, attain refugee status, make money to send back and then bring her son over.

But after eight years, she has saved nothing. She barely has enough money to pay for her bedsit accommodation let alone enough left over to send back to her son.  She was also unable to qualify for refugee status, which means she continues to remain very much illegal.

This story is not uncommon; in fact, I have heard far worse refugee stories.

The truth is I have always been very intrigued by the household employer/employee relationship—especially when it comes to illegal cleaners because they represent an unregulated labour market.  This “informal sector” is economic activity that is neither taxed nor monitored by a government (it is not included in that government’s Gross National Product-GNP) and I have always been interested not only in the abuses and exploitation that occurs within the informal market, but also the act of self-regulation and other patters of human behaviour such as generosity and reciprocity.  In developing countries, the informal economy can make up to 60% of the labour force but all economic systems contain an informal economy in some proportion.

Keith Hart, an anthropologist who coined the term back in the 1970s has a blog, which is worth checking out.


But wait, this is only a bit of background that I have provided as an intro to the story I am about to share.

Two months ago, I mistakenly drugged my cleaner.

I made 20 bite-sized hash-brownies to enjoy together with a group of 10 friends at a Cold Play concert.  I sealed them in a container and stored them away, out of reach (or so I thought), in my microwave.

That same day I received a telephone call from my cleaner who apparently couldn’t resist the urge and ate three of my brownies, while I was out with my kids at the park.

She was in a terrible state when we spoke.  When I first heard what she had done, she admitted only to having eaten one brownie, to which I responded with laughter and told her to go lie down on the sofa and watch a bit of TV until the sensation past. But then she admitted to having eaten three and went on to say that she felt numb and couldn’t see and thought she was dying.  She then proceeded to drop the phone and the line went dead.

All I could imagine was that my cleaner had passed out and hit her head on my concrete kitchen floor.  I called an ambulance and with a child under each arm, raced home as fast as I could.

Fortunately, when we all arrived, we found my cleaner sitting on the sofa—in other words, she hadn’t fallen and cracked her head on my kitchen floor.  In fact, once the ambulance drivers took her blood pressure, temperature and an even an EKG, they gave her a complete bill of good health and told her that she would be “good as new” after a solid nights rest.  The drivers then had themselves a little chuckle and left.  Meanwhile, I proceeded to tuck my cleaner into my bed, where she slept for the next five hours.

The story could have ended there and, like the ambulance drivers, I too might have had good dinner party material. But it doesn’t.

Basically, ever since this occurred, my cleaner began to suffer from panic attacks.  At first she didn’t know that this was what was happening to her (rather she was convinced that the marijuana had left her physically damaged).  But I took her to see my GP twice and to a private doctor as well–they both confirmed that she was only suffering from a bit of anxiety.

“Only” anxiety.

It is one thing to try and find straight forward medical care for an illegal immigrant (which is still very difficult) but it is a completely different ball game when it comes to finding psychiatric care for an illegal immigrant.

There are obviously no psychiatric support groups for illegal immigrants provided by the local government council, so I looked for voluntary organisations and church group support.  Unlike the US, however, which relies heavily on the voluntary sector for services such as these, medical services in the UK are provided free of charge by the NHS, and ultimately, there is a much smaller voluntary sector here with the capacity to offer such services.

So that left me trying to find a private psychiatrist/psychologist.  And here is where it begins to get tricky.  Treating mental illness is a much longer-term commitment than physical treatment.

It is important to note that before this incident occurred, my cleaner had only cleaned/worked in my house on 5 occasions.  In other words, our intimacy, mutual understanding, degree of trust did not (yet) run deep.  I mention this fact because absolutely every person I have spoken to about this situation tell me that I need to draw a line and that it should be up to my cleaner to find the mental support that she needs.  They warn me that paying for her to see a psychiatrist will lead to excessive dependency and that it is not part of my remit as her employer.

But since I’ve done the research already, I know for a fact that there isn’t much out there in terms of free community or church-based support, especially in Spanish.   I keep telling myself that if she had indeed fallen and cracked her skull on my floor, I would be paying whatever cost to help her.  She is after all under my responsibility while in my home.  And if she was legal—and we were living in the US—she might have even pressed charges or sued me for having marijuana in my house.

But I am living in the UK.  It is less of a big deal for me to have marijuana in my house—the ambulance drivers certainly never considered calling the police.  And the brownies I made were sealed away after all.  My cleaner blames herself for what happened and remains extremely embarrassed about the situation.  She is not asking me to send her to this private psychiatrist either.  She tells me that she is trying to combat her panic attacks by reading the bible and through prayer.

But her panic attacks have not subsided.

So what is my moral responsibility?  This is a problem that could easily be rationalised away. I have no fear of legal reappraisal. I hold all the cards. I could walk away.  After all, she chose to sneak and eat, not one, but three, of my brownies, which frankly did not taste like your usual brownies.

But then again, why in the world would my cleaner ever think that a respectable mother, in her mid-30s, with two small children would have made hash-brownies to sneak into a rock concert on a Wednesday night???



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