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The rise of the new man and his handyman

Middle class fathers are increasingly using handymen to do household chores so that they can balance work and family life more effectively, according to new research which has discovered a dramatic increase in the use of male domestic labour.

A report based on research by Dr Majella Kilkey of the University of Hull and Professor Diane Perrons and Dr Ania Plomien of LSE found that the arrival of Eastern European workers, particularly Polish men, has helped to fuel demand, although most handymen are still UK born.

Women working as cleaners and nannies have traditionally dominated the domestic workforce. While changes to occupational classifications hamper comparions over time, the researchers' estimates suggest that the male domestic workforce rose from 17 per cent in the early 1990s, to 27 per cent in the late 1990s, to 39 per now, with the vast majority doing handyman and gardening type jobs.

Researchers interviewed employers of handymen and found that while mothers tend to reduce their working hours to become more involved with their children, fathers are reluctant or unable to do this, so they free up time at weekends by employing handymen to do traditionally male chores such as DIY, minor repairs and gardening. As well as spending more time with their children, fathers who regularly used handymen also contributed to more traditionally feminised forms of household work such as preparing dinner and shopping.

Although many of the handymen are UK born, a growing number are from Poland and other Eastern European countries, the report found. In the UK, 16 per cent of domestic sector workers are foreign-born, compared to nine per cent in the early 1990s. In London, 57 per cent are foreign born, compared to 45 per cent in the early 1990s.

Researchers found that the demand for handymen is reflected in the emergence of a range of handymen services: firms such as 'Hire a Hubby' and 'Rent a Hubby'. Even the AA is planning to venture off road and into members' homes with the launch of a handyman service.

These firms typically have an hourly rate, use materials supplied by the purchaser and do smaller tasks that would be rejected by more specialist firms such as plumbers or electricians. They also provide services described as 'fixing' which includes hanging up mirrors and pictures, in addition to decorating and painting, small-scale building works and gardening. They typically market themselves as 'no job too small' with leaflets dropped door-to-door and adverts in local papers and shops.

Researchers also examined the increase in websites advertising the labour of Polish and Eastern European handymen, for example, 'polishhandyman.com'. It found that thousands of central and Eastern Europeans have officially registered themselves in the UK as handymen, gardeners and groundsmen since May 2004.

The report, Migration in Europe: Fathering, gender divisions and male migrant domestic services, is due to be published in the next edition of European Urban and Regional Studies and was discussed on March 5 at an LSE seminar on fathering and work-life balance for policy-makers and academics.

It found that, despite legislation enabling employees to ask for flexible and part-time work, there was little scaling back of working hours among fathers.

Diane Perrons, Professor of Economic Geography and Gender Studies at LSE, said:

'Increasingly, fatherhood has come to mean presence and active parenting, indeed the 'involved caring father' is said to be culturally embedded into British life. Fulfilling these requirements is difficult, particularly in the context of the UK's social policy environment which despite recent developments still gives little more than tokenistic support to facilitating greater father involvement.

'Long hours have to a large degree been internalised as necessary and form another aspect of masculine identity that, in the main, fathers actively endorse. Mothers were more likely to adjust their paid working hours and retain responsibility for managing childcare, the household and the organisation of outsourced work.

'For fathers with long working hours, securing time for parenting tasks is difficult. For middle to high earners, one way of 'making' time for parenting is to devolve 'their' domestic work to others - handymen. In effect, they are using their earnings to increase their time wealth.'

The report calls for changes in government policy to encourage more fathers to ask for flexible and part-time working. It concludes: 'Existing social policies for promoting gender equality fail to recognise or redress the deeply embedded gendered norms.'

Financed by the Economic and Social Research Council, the research draws on the analysis of 25 in-depth interviews with migrant handymen, mainly from Poland, and with 24 fathers who regularly employ handymen, as well as an analysis of domestic employment figures in the UK.




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