MaryJane, our helper, has four daughters. They’re aged 7, 9, 11 and 13.
She left the Philippines to come to Hong Kong when her youngest daughter, Anna Marie, was only 4. That’s how old Rufus is right now.
I know lots of people with 4-year-olds. Could you imagine leaving your 4-year-old, knowing that you wouldn’t see them for two years? Can you imagine that by choosing not to leave them, you wouldn’t be able to provide food for them?
I can’t. I actually can’t imagine it. I probably could, but when you become a parent some things are so unthinkable you refuse to contemplate them. Everything you hear in the news, you transpose your own family into that situation but if you’re me, and I’m guessing most parents, you can’t follow scenarios through. I can’t really think about my kids being taken from me, or something bad happening to them, or being separated from them.
And I’m lucky because, all things being equal, I won’t have to worry about things like that.
For MaryJane and the approximately 300,000 other foreign domestic helpers (FDHs – men and women, “houseboys” and maids) here, they do have to worry about that. Through the single unlucky circumstance of being born in a poor/overpopulated/socially depressed nation (Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, etc.), their best chance of providing for their families is to LEAVE THEM and come to Hong Kong (and other countries), where they are basically overworked and underpaid – and yet still earn more than they could at home.
Their contracts are for two years. Employers are obliged to pay them a minimum monthly wage (currently AU$450), plus either a food allowance or a share in the household food. The job description includes childcare, shopping, cleaning, cooking, pick-up and drop-off of children, car-washing, dog-walking, etc etc etc. Legally FDHs are entitled to one day off a week, plus all statutory holidays. I can’t comment with any authority or knowledge on the political and social circumstances in the Philippines or Indonesia that have caused this situation. I can’t even talk with authority about the “situation” here in Hong Kong, in all its complexity: all I can do it tell you what I see and hear about. And suddenly it’s become really important to do so.
Things like helpers being paid half the minimum wage or less. Helpers not receiving any income at all for six months because they’re paying back the costs of the agency who hooked their contract up. Helpers never having a day off. Helpers working 20 hours a day. Helpers having their food rationed and weighed out. Helpers allowed one piece of bread for breakfast. A helper terminated when HK$20 ($AU3) goes missing from the change jar (even though it was later discovered the husband took it to buy a newspaper). A helper terminated for having her employer’s daughter’s pencil in her bedroom. Those last few are I guess slightly more extreme examples, but here are some other COMMON abominations:
Helpers sleeping in tin sheds on the roofs of houses. Helpers not being allowed to use the airconditioning (and it’s not just hot here; it’s fucking hot). Helpers not being allowed to touch the kids they care for without disinfecting their hands every hour. Helpers handfeeding those kids (aged 5, 6, 7, 10, 11) and carrying their bags to school for them (which may result in behaviour like thisin Singapore).
They are also in the uniquely challenging situation of living at their workplace. So there’s no privacy and there’s no real downtime. It says something (something appalling) that amongst many of the helpers in Sai Kung, we are known as heroic employers because we pay more than minimum wage; give MaryJane Saturday off as well as Sunday; and give her a proper bedroom in our house instead of the “helper’s quarters” (read: cupboard off the kitchen). We insist that she calls us Jade and Joel, instead of ma’am and sir – and that was a hard habit for her to break! She has a laptop in her room, and she can use the internet connection to Skype her kids. We “let” her go home twice a year, and we pay for those airfares. Our kids are allowed and encouraged to kiss and cuddle MaryJane (and her them) and form a close and trusting relationship with her. She is, in reality, an adjunct parent – not just in our family but in all families with helpers. In most families the helpers spend more time with the kids than the parents. The helper is in charge of the general running and maintenance of the entire household. Basic dignity issues aside, why would you engender disenchantment in someone with that much influence over every part of your life? It just doesn’t make sense.
You might be thinking (especially if you’re reading this in a country that doesn’t have FDHs) that I can’t legitimately be writing this, as someone who employs a helper. But there’s no other childcare options here. I believe more than one-third of all Hong Kong families employ a domestic helper, and in the area we live (i.e. there are no government housing towers in Sai Kung), it seems to be literally 100% of families. Even people without kids will have a part-time FDH come in once or twice a week to help with cleaning and laundry. Theoretically it’s a typical meshing of market needs: working hours here are very long, so people want help where they can get it; and there is an oversupply of helpers desperate to send money home to their families. We treat our helper well and provide a fair “workplace” and working situation that affords her the self-respect of supporting her own family, and I don’t feel much mental torment over that.
I’ll own that when we first came here, we were adamant that our helper would only do childcare. In the event MaryJane does three-quarters of the laundry, three-quarters of the cooking, all the cleaning and most of the dog-walking. The difficulty is that helpers have made the unthinkably difficult decision to come here and support their families – and it is a proper job for them. Taking that away undervalues that sacrifice that they’ve made. I find myself asking MaryJane to do things tentatively, like, “Oh, is it okay if you wash our doona cover while I’m at work today? Sorry. Only if you have time.” If I see her mopping the floor after cooking dinner, organising the kids’ toys and folding all the washing, I want to tell her to sit down. If we’re in town, I hate it when she carries the shopping. But it is a fine line between treating your helper the respect, and diminishing their own PERSONAL respect and standing amongst the other helpers. This is one of those things that, over time, I’m learning to handle better. In the beginning I was adamant that MaryJane wouldn’t carry our shopping in public, or automatically sit in the back seat of a taxi, so eager was I for her not to feel like any sort of servant. In doing so I was also taking away her right to feel like she has a worthwhile job – which she very (very, very!) much does. I didn’t realise I wasn’t being noble, I was being close-minded in the wrong direction. Other helpers saw MaryJane in the front seat of our taxi, not holding either child or shopping, and would accuse her of laziness or insinuate they were going to apply for her job. The helpers take pride in their incredible time-management and strength, and I’ve finally learned taking that away from them isn’t an act of kindness but just another way of removing their ownership over their job. And that’s important to everyone, no matter the job.
The problem with accepting the luxury of having a domestic helper as normal, is that it develops into entitlement. If you’re in a country that doesn’t have domestic helpers, you have to admit that it’s a fantasy. Everyone has said before, “I’d love to have a full-time maid” – and here, almost anyone CAN have one, and it’s almost expected, and then it becomes normal, not a privilege. And then things like what I mentioned above happen. And they happen everywhere. The expat forums are alight with ridiculous “advice” about how to “deal with” your helper. Westerners proclaim to be fair and judicious employers (and in their defence, seem largely more reasonable than their Chinese counterparts) but still insist on their helpers calling them ma’am and sir. It’s a generalisation, of course, but Chinese employers seem far more likely to treat their helpers as servants instead of employees. What I wrote the other week about Indama, the Indonesian helper in our village who earns less than half the minimum wage and never has a day off, is testament to that. MaryJane says Filipinas avoid working for the Chinese where possible because they aren’t “quite as desperate” – they can live with less pay, but they can’t come at that in combination with no days off. The Indonesians who are here are apparently poorer than the Filipinas and that gives them less choice in employer.
I don’t know where I’m going with all this, but it’s been weighing on my mind since we got here and suddenly it’s really agitating me, and I don’t know what to do about it. There are advocacy groups here, obviously. But if they haven’t been able to do the really important things – like enforce minimum wage, guarantee days off, instate entitlements granted to all other Hongkongers, including other “foreigners”, relating to eventual citizenship and other sovereignty rights like voting – then it’s unlikely I’m going to be able to effect any of those sort of changes. Especially being just one little uneducated voice. But I feel like I have to do something.
It seems really important, very first of all, to show the helpers dignity in a non-condescending way. Day to day, that means, to me, acknowledging them as one would anyone else, and being seen to do some of your own shit so they can actually think of themselves as helpers rather than servants (or slaves). Another next step I’m thinking about (though this might be a stupid idea, I haven’t crystallised it in my mind enough yet) is sharing some of the helpers’ stories here or elsewhere. MaryJane volunteers on Saturday nights in the local helper “shelter”, and through her I’ve heard lots and lots of stories, and met lots of helpers. They really are unseen numbers here, an army of second-class citizens essentially keeping the country running, and they’re not people who would have ever crossed my mind when I lived in Australia. Now I kind of feel that not only do they deserve the dignity we all deserve, but they might deserve a little bit more acknowledgment for the immense personal sacrifices they make.
Anyway, it’s all a mess in my head right now. Do you have any ideas?
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Rufus and Zadie playing with the daughters of the helper of some of our friends (hairdresser’s cousin’s dog’s aunty). You know what I mean. These very lucky girls are here for a month to stay with their mum. There are hundreds of thousands of kids in the Philippines who will go to sleep without their parents tonight, and every night for two years. At which time they’ll have TWO WEEKS with their mum. Yeah.
I miss my own kids just thinking about it. And they’re upstairs in bed, secure in a house with their family, where they belong. A house that really only functions thanks to MaryJane.