The risk of sliding down: Domestic work and the legacies of slavery in the highlands of Madagascar

by MARCO GARDINI

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Working relationships are one of the most privileged arenas for renegotiating class and status distinctions, and the notion of “sliding down” is a common worry in many societies. In Madagascar the legacies of slavery powerfully haunt contemporary life, shaping the economic conditions and everyday power relations between employers and domestic workers. Socially isolated domestic workers often run the risk of “sliding down” the local ranked system of essentialized, endogamous status groups, a system that still divides families into three categories of origin: noble, common, and slave. While many employers try to reinforce their social prestige by “pushing others down,” domestic workers struggle to avoid being labeled and treated as a “slave.” Meanwhile, a global “neoabolitionist” movement may label these harsh forms of labor exploitation as a “new form of slavery,” but such labels might erode domestic workers’ efforts to de‐essentialize their stigmatized social position.