How HK's domestic helpers are subjected to modern-day segregation, and other thinly veiled acts of racism

Cyril Ip

Domestic helpers are being told that they aren’t allowed to shower at home. Let’s call it what it is: racial segregation in 2018

Cyril Ip |

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Domestic workers are ill treated in the city.

Employers in Hong Kong commonly refer to their domestic helpers as jeh jeh, which is the Cantonese phrase for “young lady” or “sister”. Terms like “maid” and “au pair” are often avoided because a jeh jeh is more than a housemaid – she is associated with almost every part of the employer family’s daily routine, from cooking three meals a day to sending children off to school. Jeh jeh sounds more appropriate, respectful, and crucially, welcoming. Yet, jeh jehs in Hong Kong are hardly ever treated with the sort of respect a “sister” warrants.

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I recently overhead a conversation between a group of helpers which highlighted this for me. Two helpers said to a third with a hint of disenchantment – the kind that says “it’s bad but we’re used to it” – that they had to go to their apartment complex clubhouse to shower and wash their clothes. Their employers had told them their water bill would be too high if they did these things at home.

This expensive water argument is a financial smokescreen-excuse for what is, to me, racial segregation. Any person with even the slightest sensitivity will see the similarities between this and the Jim Crow laws, which enforced racial segregation in the Southern United States. It meant black Americans had to use different restrooms and drinking fountains from Caucasians. Today’s Hong Kong employers using their water bills as justification for their behaviour is just as absurd as when the US Supreme Court defended racial segregation as “separate but equal”.

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According to the Standard Employment Contract, domestic helpers are to be provided with “suitable accommodation and with reasonable privacy”. Accommodation means a place where a person lives and stays – to my understanding, a place where a person can conduct their essential, daily practices of hygiene, which includes showering and doing laundry. When an employer requires a helper to migrate to a separate building (which is not a property that he or she owns or rents) to conduct such practices, he or she fails to provide the complete form of accommodation. “Suitable accommodation” is arguably vague – perhaps the lawmakers have forgotten that there will be unethical employers that exploit grey areas like this one and treat their helpers as aliens rather than jeh jehs.

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The clubhouse is a communal area for residents of an estate to use. All its facilities, from the swimming pool to the changing rooms, are there to provide entertainment. The residents pay a maintenance and administration fee every month to keep it running. It is not a place people should be forced to wash themselves because their employers are tight-fisted. Asking jeh jehs to shower in an external, communal area is principally wrong, not to mention how racially charged such an act may be.

Lawmakers, please, make it lucidly clear to employers what “accommodation” means for a domestic helper. We can avoid this abuse of such a loop hole. While an employer’s hidden racist/class mentality cannot be ruled unlawful, the actions committed based on such a mentality are easily detectable and punishable. Hong Kong, a city which prides itself on diversity, can do so much better.

Edited by Ginny Wong