As I see it

Maid in Hong Kong - Part 1

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 August, 2012, 5:18pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 September, 2012, 11:51am


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(This is a repost of Jason's popular original blog entry dated June 30, 2011)

Few symbols of colonialism are more powerful and universally recognized than the live-in maid. From the British trading post in Bombay to the cotton plantation in Mississippi, images abound of the olive-skinned domestic worker buzzing around the house, cooking, cleaning, ironing and bringing ice-cold lemonade to her masters griping about the summer heat. It is therefore all the more ironic that, for a city that cowered to colonial rule for one and a half century, Hong Kong should have the highest number of maids per capita in Asia. In our city of contradictions, neither a modest income nor a diminutive apartment is an obstacle for local families to hire a domestic helper and to live out the dream of a middle-class existence free of chores and errands.

On any given Sunday or public holiday, migrant domestic workers carpet every inch of open space in Central and Causeway Bay. They turn parks and footbridges into camping sites where cardboard boxes are their walls and opened umbrellas their roofs. They play cards, cut hair, sell handicraft and practice complicated dance routines for upcoming talent contests. It is one of those Hong Kong phenomena that charm tourists and fascinate newcomers. Local citizens, on the other hand, have grown so used to the weekly nuisance that they no longer see it or hear it. But when the night falls, the music stops and the crowds disperse. One by one the fun-loving revelers return to their employers’ homes for another week of mindless drudgery. And the weeks turn into months, months into years.

In the late 1970s, Hong Kong was experiencing historical economic growths and transforming from a manufacturing to a service-based economy. The colonial government found itself facing the twin problems of labor shortage and rising labor costs. In an effort to encourage local women to enter the workforce, the government eased restrictions on migrant workers and brought in the first batch of domestic helpers from the Philippines. In the decades that followed, the number of Filipino maids in the city continued to rise. More young women followed in the footsteps of their friends and relatives and moved here in search of higher pay and a chance to escape from their impoverished country. Other South East Asian countries soon caught on and joined in the labor export business. Today, there are roughly 140,000 Filipino domestic helpers in the city, nearly as many from Indonesia and around 4,000 from Thailand.

Back in the Philippines, women with a high school education or less – who make up the bulk of the migrant workers overseas – make around HK$300 (US$40) a month working in a restaurant or a store. Here in Hong Kong, on the other hand, they stand to earn many times that amount, plus free room and board and a round-trip ticket to return home once a year. In exchange, they must leave behind their own family and live a vicarious life in a stranger’s home. They must also endure homesickness, loneliness, spousal infidelity, and the occasional verbal and even physical abuse by their employers. Fearing reprisals and termination of their employment contracts, domestic helpers keep their mouths shut when they are asked to do things they are not supposed to (such as washing cars and giving massages) or paid less than they are supposed to. Indeed, the rising popularity of Indonesian maids among local families – they are soon to outnumber Filipino maids in the city – owes in part to their reputation for being soft-spoken and obliging, and in part to their willingness to accept a 25% discount from the statutory minimum wage.

By law, employers are required to pay their live-in helpers a minimum monthly salary of HK$3,580 (US$460). The amount reflects how much our society values the economic benefit of freeing up a parent from domestic responsibilities to earn a second household income. For the price of a couple of piano lessons or a monthly parking space, we get to hold a fellow human being in captivity while we are out in the world making 10, 20 times the salary we pay them. Though much of the city’s economic success is built on the backs of these migrant workers, they remain one of the most grossly mispriced commodities in our economy. Perhaps that’s why every gweilo (expat) employer, without exception, pays their domestic workers well above the legal minimum, starting at $5,000 and sometimes as high as $7,000 or $8,000. The pay differential is largely unknown and irrelevant to the local population, most of whom sees absolutely nothing wrong with sticking to the bare minimum. For there appears to be a simple justification: if they don’t like it, there is always that $300 job waiting for them back in the Philippines! We got a glimpse of that line of reasoning recently, when the government raised the minimum allowable wage by a meager $160 per month, an increase of less than 5%. The move was meant to pacify the migrant worker community after the government callously excluded them from the protection of a new labor law guaranteeing local workers a $28 hourly rate. Nevertheless, the $160 pay raise prompted unhappy citizens to call in to radio talk shows to gripe about the excessive increase and the added financial burden on the middle class. No doubt the callers were already thinking up ways to work their maids a little harfder just to make up for the difference.

The access to cheap domestic help has altered many aspects of our daily lives, but none is more disturbing than the creation of a generation of gong hai (港孩). The term, a relatively new entrant to our lexicon, refers to local children spoiled rotten by their doting parents. With a maid at their every beck and call, they have troubles performing simple tasks like making their beds, tying their shoelaces or even brushing their own teeth. Accustomed to barking orders at their adult helpers, these pint-sized tyrants lack basic manners and social skills. The sheltered environment at home, combined with the deep sense of entitlement it instills, sets these children up to fail in the real world. Parents waking up to this new reality are forced to take a closer look at the way their children are raised. Some are rethinking the wisdom of getting domestic help in the first place.

I don’t have a live-in maid and I never thought about getting one. Besides finding the idea itself too colonial for my taste, I would probably feel awkward and somewhat restrained having another person living in close quarters. Still, every other family in my apartment building seems to have a helper; some have even more than one. Everyday I see them walking the family dog or lugging bagfuls of groceries. They hold the door for me and let me get into the elevator before them, always a smile on the face. The fact that they would yield to someone they don’t even work for reminds me of the social divide that still exists between us and them. More than three decades after their predecessors first arrived in Hong Kong, foreign domestic workers are still not afforded full membership in our society. Like it or not, these quasi-citizens unflinchingly hold up a mirror to our city and reveal our parsimony and ingratitude to those who have made an immeasurable contribution to our prosperity and quality of life.
Raquel Nunag contributed research.