A few years ago, when we lived in a different neighborhood and my kids took the bus to primary school, I was privy to the complicated world of the domestic helper. At this time, I was working from home, so I could meet my girls off the bus every afternoon. I was often the only mom there – me and our dog and about ten helpers waiting for the kids to come home.
One helper – let’s call her Riza – was particularly friendly and chatty. She liked to tell me what was going on in the lives of these women, and as you can imagine it was not pretty.
I heard about the young woman whose male boss liked to call her over for a chat while he sat on the toilet. I heard about the older woman hired out of a dirt poor village in India who could speak no English or Chinese and who was being paid about ¼ of what Hong Kong law mandated. She had no idea she was being underpaid until the other helpers told her. I heard that a normal working day – normal, I tell you – could last from 6am to midnight. Eighteen hours a day for six, sometimes seven, days per week. One woman in our building, who worked for a married couple with no children, was not allowed to take a holiday because: who would walk the dog?
The stories I heard were not as terrible as the plight of Erwiana, the Indonesian maid who was abused and starved by her employer. (You can read about her here.) But they all go to the heart of the matter, which is a lack of dignity for these women and the work they do.
On the other side of the equation I’ve heard about helpers who steal from their employers, feign sickness on a weekly basis and feed cough syrup to healthy toddlers just so they’ll go to sleep easily at night. The most common scenario is the helper who borrows money from a loan shark and names her employer as collateral. Then when the helper skips town, it’s the employer who gets threatening phone calls and even knocks on the door from an enforcer demanding payment.
It’s a curious relationship – employer and helper – one that requires a huge amount of trust on both sides. We ask them to come in to our homes and care for our precious loved ones and they in turn can only hope we’ll treat them fairly, with respect. In Hong Kong, where adequate daycare for children and senior citizens doesn’t exist, families will continue to need domestic helpers. Can all of these households afford to pay a living wage? Probably not. But the two-working-parents household can’t survive otherwise. It’s that simple, and that complex.
There’s hope that the conviction of Erwiana’s employer will make a difference, that governments will do more to protect migrant workers from exploitation. The women waiting for the school buses of the world are counting on it.