Can I press my char into ironing for free?

22nd May, 2010

Dear Economist,
My ironing lady – housebound and bored – has taken to phoning me up and begging me to bring round my bed linen for ironing. As I return to pick it up again, proffering a pair of crisp £20 notes, I quip: “But Sheila, aren’t I providing occupational therapy and shouldn’t you be paying me?” She laughs, pocketing the banknotes, and glows with satisfaction as I take my pile of pillowslips. It is my social duty to continue this relationship, but why do I feel I am the one being flattened?
Flora Fortis, London

Dear Ms Fortis,

You are indeed providing great satisfaction to a vulnerable woman. But don’t feel too smug. You seem to be imagining that you could demand free ironing, or even charge your ironing lady for the loan of sheets that she wants to iron. I rather doubt this.

Naive game theory suggests that since Sheila enjoys ironing so much, you can threaten to withhold your custom and she will agree to iron for nothing. But to analyse the situation properly you must consider Sheila’s outside options. There are many dirty sheets in London, and she will not find it hard to secure other customers. You, on the other hand, will have to travel a long way before you find another ironing lady so cheerful.

Sheila’s satisfaction with her job is surely not unique. I know we talk of work as a terrible chore, something we do only for cash. Yet in reality, many people enjoy their jobs and get paid to do them. The leisure time “enjoyed” by the unemployed is not enjoyable at all. It is a crushing experience, especially on top of the loss of income.

In a world where rumpled linen is in plentiful supply, Sheila’s enjoyment of ironing is simply her good fortune. It is not something you will be able to parlay into cheap laundry services.

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