More than help: Realising dignity in overseas domestic work
There is a famous saying that goes, ‘you cannot understand someone until you have walked a mile in their shoes’. As much as it is about appreciating what others have been through, it is also about being able to feel what they feel, and understand who they are and why they are here. It is the sense of empathy that binds humans together and makes a society flourish.
As locals living in Hong Kong, people like me are often shielded from many things, but when speaking with marginalised groups, like migrant domestic workers in the city, we can see the weaknesses in Hong Kong’s human development up close.
Migrant domestic workers are all too often treated unequally and not respected for their hard work and contribution. The inequality is manifested both in actual and linguistic terms. In actual terms, the city does not offer migrant domestic workers an easy living. Work hours often stretch beyond 10 hours a day, and sometimes add up to even more than 60 hours in a typical six-day workweek. The pay is low, £435 per month – lower than the minimum wage for local Hongkongers (£3.5 per hour, equivalent to £845 for the above-stated work schedule). In order to attend to any immediate family business, they have to use their annual leave, which is a measly 7 days per year, and may only fly home at their own expense. If they fall ill or get pregnant, they are pretty much on their own.
In linguistic terms, migrant domestic workers are often referred to as ‘foreign domestic helpers’ or even ‘maids’. While it is colloquial to call them ‘foreign domestic helpers’, the term suggests a lower and unequal role for these women who sacrifice their dreams and desires to take up overseas domestic work in a city that is alien to them. ‘Foreign’ also tends to have a negative connotation and is used to discriminate against a person’s culture, customs, language, or country. It implies that the person or people being discussed are not acceptable in some way – that they do not belong where they are. The fact that these workers are women, from countries regarded as less developed, and are of different ethnic backgrounds, can further their social marginalisation and the depreciation of their rights in host societies like Hong Kong.
On the other hand, the term ‘helper’ is also demeaning and harmful – not only because it is politically incorrect as it is fundamentally a paid working relationship, but also because it has a direct impact on how these workers are perceived. For example, some workers might be asked to leave home late on their only day off, Sunday, and come home early to help put their employers’ children to bed because the kids need to wake up early on Monday for school. While some workers have no choice but to agree, this is problematic since they are workers and are engaged in a contractual relationship. Accordingly, they are entitled to labour rights. In this sense, the term ‘foreign domestic helper’ is deeply problematic and is a loaded expression that should be replaced by ‘migrant domestic worker’ – a better term that reflects the actual work these women do.
There is still a long way to go before recognising a ‘foreign domestic helper’ as a ‘migrant domestic worker’. Most migrant domestic workers work in a closed environment, for one employer, with no other colleagues, and virtually no opportunities for career progression. They might not have the power or tools to influence how their employers or society perceive them. This is why society must lead the way towards a standardised terminology that is accurate, empowering and respectful towards some of these most hardworking workers in the world. It is not just about calling them a different name or giving them a different title, but fundamentally, it is about seeing them as equal to us all on all levels.
Further reading and resources:
Topic: ‘Foreign Domestic Workers in Hong Kong’. South China Morning Post. https://www.scmp.com/topics/foreign-domestic-workers-hong-kong
‘Hong Kong’s hidden name’. International Labor Organization/Hong Kong Coconuts. https://apmigration.ilo.org/news/hong-kongs-hidden-shame
‘How much is the minimum wage and food allowance for migrant domestic workers?’ Enrich. https://enrichhk.org/how-much-minimum-wage-and-food-allowance-migrant-domestic-workers
Lui, Ingrid D. et al. 2021. ‘“We also deserve help during the pandemic”: The effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong’. Journal of Migration and Health 3 (special issue). Open access: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2666623521000040
Greta Lai is a Policy Research Officer at a Hong Kong-based NGO that helps migrant women and their Hong Kong-born children, where she researches and writes content on maternity rights of migrant domestic workers. Greta has a master’s degree in International Migration and Public Policy from the London School of Economics. Within the field of migration, Greta is particularly interested in Chinese migration diplomacy and overseas North Korean identity formation. Greta has previously worked at The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) as a conflict researcher, at the poverty reduction division at the United Nations Development Programme in Beijing and at the International Crisis Group’s Northeast Asia office.