The View

Post-Regina Ip, behaving better and thoughtfully to the Hong Kong maids in our midst

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 April, 2015, 11:24am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 April, 2015, 12:05pm

I was recently arguing with someone about how the law of supply and demand changes the physiology of our brains. A strange topic, for sure, and even more strangely, Regina Ip may have helped prove my case.

Let me explain. As most readers are no doubt aware, the New People’s Party chairwoman recently wrote something stunningly galling about foreign domestic helpers.

Yet gall towards domestic helpers is rampant in Hong Kong. I don’t think a week passes without my hearing some petty snipe on the quality of their services. And when not hearing I’m sharing. Did I mention that my helper has a habit of clearing away the coffee pot before it’s empty – if not, keep your eyes peeled for a future column on this issue, because I make a cracking good case as to why this should be a capital offense.

I have a number of liberal friends and acquaintances who are constantly cluttering their Facebook pages with links to Guardian articles on the evils of capitalism. One week the evil capitalists are destroying the environment, the next scooping all the economic rewards for themselves, the next oppressing females.

Yet I am pretty sure that if these individuals were somehow magically transformed into titans of capital, they would be just as penny-pinching and demanding on payrolls. I believe this because I’ve seen them with their maids.

Let’s take my supposedly left-leaning husband as an example. We were recently discussing an acquaintance of ours who dismissed a helper over what appeared to be a case of unvacuumed hairballs the cat coughed up.

My husband defended the move, saying: “Giving a job to an inadequate maid just takes a job from a better one.”

Adam Smith, who was first and foremost a moral philosopher, would agree with this utilitarian argument. Allowing the law of supply and demand to work its natural magic does the greater good – in this case, prevents a good helper from being cheated by a bad one.

Yet it’s really not that simple. The cost of dismissal is inordinately high under the peculiarities of Hong Kong’s domestic helper rules. Foreign maids have two weeks to get a new job or they’re shipped out, often with unpaid debts incurred in getting here. Moreover, a dismissal for poor performance is a death knell –because with a gazillion applicants, why would any employer accept one with even the hint of a problem?

This supply-demand dynamics is the math we all perform in the back of our heads when our tempers flare over coffee pots and hairballs. If good maids were hard to come by, would we be so demanding? I doubt it.

It is also the same maths performed all the time across the globe in this age of widening inequality. Low-skilled labour has been losing power against capital because they are oversupplied.

Adam Smith might argue that this is all for the greater good; that half a billion Chinese have been lifted out of dire poverty, and that’s worth more than the struggles of millions of Wal-Mart workers whose real incomes is stagnating.

My narrow point is that these imbalances are processed somewhere in the depths of our brain, changing its structure, our demands and expectations: our moral reckoning. And it is easy to turn nasty and demanding and even dehumanizing towards economic lowers – how do we halt that process?

Perhaps our new Gilded Age requires a new social code, some kind of modern version of noblesse oblige. At the very least, those of us on the right side of the widening wealth gap need to be equipped with better manners.

We can do this in small everyday ways. Interviews with workers in apparel stores, for example, show they find it frustrating to pick up and re-rack clothes. It’s not the physical work, it’s the idea of doing labour created by thoughtlessness.

So don’t just drop clothes on the floor after trying them on.

Or don’t let your kids order around the servers in restaurants. That’s demeaning.

Oh, and here’s a good one. If you know any women who have left their children behind to come to Hong Kong and work six days a week raising whiny rich people’s kids instead – try not to call them hussies, Regina Ip.