Enough is enough: Hong Kong must seek alternatives to foreign domestic helpers

Kelly Yang says the recurring problem of maid abuse must spur Hong Kong to find better ways to meet its childcare and elderly care needs

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 March, 2015, 12:52pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 March, 2015, 6:49pm

For weeks, the cases of Erwiana Sulistyaningsih and Anis Andriyani have lain  side by side in the media. One is the tale of an unspeakable horror: a young maid, abused by her employer, who at one point  stuck a metal tube from a vacuum cleaner into her mouth. The other is a tale of “unresolved mysteries” – the maid accuses her employer of wounding her; however, the judge later dismisses the claim. 

It’s heart-breaking to read the story of Erwiana and then that of Anis. Anis’ employer, Ngan Suk-wai,  who was last month acquitted of wounding Anis, likened it to being subjected to “a terrorist attack”. Indeed, for the weeks in which she was under investigation, she suffered physically, emotionally and financially – incurring six-figure lawyers’ fees.  

Ngan’s story sends chills down my spine. As a working mother who also employs domestic helpers, it sickens me that cases like Erwiana’s exist in our city. And it terrifies me that people can be accused of a crime and have to undergo such suffering themselves. Ngan was a manager at a dental clinic. What happened to her could have happened to any of us and the stigma from an accusation can live on long after the case is over and the person acquitted. 

Both these cases point to a chilling reality: Hong Kong’s  system of relying on imported domestic helpers is broken. I used to think that it was the secret to Hong Kong’s success, but now I’m starting to wonder. 

There’s something terribly sad and unhealthy about having to rely on a group of imported women, who are thousands of miles from home, to do all our housework and childcare. It’s not normal to choose strangers from the internet, go and fetch them from an agency, and welcome them into our homes to live with us. As can clearly be seen from these two cases, we often don’t know who we’re getting. The helpers don’t know, either.  

What do we do? Solutions such as doing chores ourselves and putting up with more clutter are a nice start but are limited, since they don’t address the core issues of childcare and elderly care. These, after all, are the areas in which most people say they have no alternative but to hire a foreign domestic helper.

So, we need real alternatives. And we need to look closer to home first. Currently, there are more than a million Hong Kong people living below the poverty line. Yet, many of these people are reluctant to do cleaning or childcare work  as they’re worried they will “lose face”. 
There’s nothing shameful about domestic work. When I was younger, I babysat for a lot for neighbours’ and friends’ children to make extra money. It also taught me a great deal about responsibility and patience. Hong Kong youngsters  rarely babysit – or do any jobs or chores for that matter. I recently asked a group of secondary students whether they’d like the chance to babysit, and their reply was an enthusiastic “yes”. 

“So why don’t you?” I asked. “Because there’s no chance. Everyone already has a helper!” they said. Maybe it’s time we changed that.
Kelly Yang teaches writing at The Kelly Yang Project,  an after-school centre for writing and debate in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School. www.kellyyang.edu.hk