Help the helper

Kelly Yang says even if domestic helpers are denied permanent residency here, they should at least be allowed to live out

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 April, 2013, 3:29am

Last summer, I was riding a train in San Francisco when two young couples in their early 30s came on board with five toddlers. The kids weren't misbehaving, but the parents looked as frazzled as the worn-out strollers they pushed.

"What if there was a place where the houses all came with babysitters, and the babysitters wouldn't be crazy expensive?" one of them thought out loud.

"Yeah, and they could cook!" another added. "And there'd be a pool area - for adults only!"

Up and down the aisle, mums and dads nodded enthusiastically. "With drinks!" someone added. "Margaritas! And our houses would always be clean!"

I wanted to say something. But what exactly? That such a place exists? That I live there? That I can't remember the last time I shopped for groceries? Or did the dishes? They'd never believe it. I would not have believed when I first moved here that a person would live with and work for me six days a week.

But we live in a strange place where a full-time domestic helper costs less than a part-time one. So, shortly after moving here, I got my first helper. There I was, just 22 years old and in charge of another adult. She was a 26-year-old Filipina named Daisy and I had absolutely no idea what to do with her.

"Work her hard," people told me. "If there's nothing to clean in your house, make a mess. Eat your dinner late, at 9pm, so she has to stay up and clean. Trust me."

I was astounded by these people and their cruel instructions masked as human resources insight. I vowed to be different - I would be the nice employer. I took Daisy out to lunch and, when that wasn't enough, to a fashion show. She told me about her hard life back in the Philippines - and after that, it was difficult to ask her to clean again.

After Daisy, I tried an elderly woman who talked to herself, a woman who could make a mean beef stew, followed by a woman who cried all day. As I watched stranger after stranger move into my house, I clung to the hope that this time I would get it right.

But I didn't and here's why: I could not manage them well. The truth is, I don't want to manage anyone at 8pm. All I want to do when I go home from work is relax. Chill out. Talk about whatever I want. Walk around in my underwear - something I can never do because the law requires domestic helpers to live with employers.

If I could tell those parents on the train one thing, it's that having houses with built-in babysitters is not the utopia they imagine. Yes, it's a godsend for working parents, myself included. Yet, it's a system built on unfairness and, as Monday's verdict reminds us, inequality.

It's hard work for the employers who manage and supervise them. It's 10 times harder work for the helpers, some of whom have been working here for over 20 years and now, without any chance of future permanent residence, will probably still be helpers in another 20 years' time. The very least we can do is give the helpers and the employers a break. Allow helpers the option to live out.

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School.