[Days and Nights of Family Carers in the Epidemic] Migrant Domestic Workers: Care Work, Employment and Race (I)
Written by: migrants solidarity committee autonomous 8a
Speaking of family carers, we cannot ignore 300,000 migrant domestic workers (MDWs) in Hong Kong. But their stories are tough to tell. Let’s start with the employment relationship. MDWs are facing similar problems as local workers: the employer will not provide you with any surgical masks, go and find one by yourself. However, MDWs are workers who are compelled to live in their employers’ houses. When employers worry that their workers will bring the virus home, with the help of the Labour Department appealing MDWs to stay at home on rest days, many of them are not allowed to have a day off even it is only once a week, and some are even fired because they fight for their rest days.
These are social and policy discrimination, but it also relates to the employer’s economic ability despite what is framed as “some conscienceless employers refusing to ensure employees’ occupational safety and health”. Searching for protective gears is never a concern for wealthy employers, and they don’t mind buying groceries in expensive chain supermarkets. While a number of families who can afford hiring a worker are just ordinary workers, they can’t even buy enough masks for themselves queuing outside medical stores or through online booking.
The market is down, so lower-class employees are fired, leaving the whole family’s living at stake. But what it means for MDWs is a large amount of agency fees due (Note: All MDWs must find a job via agencies in order to work in Hong Kong, which allows agent companies to make huge profits by overcharging) and the destiny of being deported (and that would be nothing left to say expect: who would like to work far from home if they can get a normal job back there?)
Then we try to talk about care work. Compared to our mums and other carers, MDWs’ domestic work are at least paid, but the working conditions are worse than that of local domestic workers. The current minimum allowable wage for MDWs is HKD4,630 per month, far lower than the statutory minimum wage level (HKD37.5/hr). Moreover, MDWs are compelled to live with their employers, which means they don’t have definite working hours, so many of them mentioned the pressure of employers working at home these days. (Imagine the scenario when you have to live with your employer and be on call for 24 hours.)
In some families, MDW is not the only carer – Like Ris, their “partners” are always the female employers in the house. So, what is the division and negotiation of care work between the two carers? Do MDWs have the power to say? These involve the depreciation and discrimination regarding domestic work, gender and race.
The relationship between carers and those being taken care of is even subtle. ‘We are like a family.’ Said by the family who have good employment relationship. Indeed. The child can be dependent, arrogant, being affectionate and make you touched. The elderly can be caring, fussy, bad tempered and a good company. Such emotional labour is the days and nights of every family carer. Still, they are not the family of MDWs. The daily relationship, strange to close, is going to end some day, because MDWs need to return and fill in that missing page of their own families – which might be missing for more than 10 years. Even if they have been rooted in Hong Kong and their children have built their own families, MDWs have no rights to stay (however long they work, MDWs will never have the right of abode in Hong Kong). Plus, the power imbalance is always there even between a friendly employer and employee.
In the end, it is always the same story: the lack of public care service, gender inequality, non-recognition of domestic/care work, transfer of benefits between the export and import states, the institutional and social discrimination against migrant workers. The following bitter experience arise out of this vicious circle. But is that all? Can individual encounters transcend these chains? Can changes be made by collective resistance? Under persistent struggle and countercurrent, let’s hear their stories.
Hands Scalded Working for a Wealthy Family
Photo provided by Ris
Ris (alias), from the Philippines, is working for a western family in the mid-levels. Recently they have a new member: a 6-month-old baby girl, Amanda (alias). The female employer is taking maternity leave, so she looks after the baby during daytime. The family hires a post-natal care worker (Ah-ma) for the night, just to free the mother for some precious, uninterrupted rest. When a newborn encounters the epidemic of Covid-19, the highest level of defence is adopted. Even though she is not primarily responsible for the baby, Ris becomes the “frontline”.
Disinfecting the house inside out twice a day is just the basic, especially for every switch and corner. But that’s not enough. Since the daughter is her first baby, the female employer still worries and requires Ris to clean using boiling water. Ris once tried to use warm water instead but was immediately stopped doing so. As a result, even with gloves on, Ris’s both hands are scalded with black scars. Understanding the employer’s concern though, Ris is still annoyed: ‘It’s too fussy!’
As usual, Ris needs to buy food for cooking, but her female employer asks her not to go to the market, but to the supermarket five minutes’ walk away from home. Meanwhile, she wants fresh ingredients which you can’t always buy from the supermarket. Under the epidemic, the employer emphasizes healthy and balanced diet. Ris finds it difficult not only to design the menus, but also to prepare the meals. This has become the most tiring work despite cleaning.
Except for occasional walk at the peak, both employers now stay at home for almost the whole day. ‘The stress is all over the house.’ Ris said. The pressure, most directly, comes from the need to reschedule the domestic work. Before, she has her own steps: living room, bedrooms, kitchen, one by one, and it’s fast. But now, in addition to heavier workload, the male employer usually works and has meetings in the dining room, so Ris has to wait until he finishes work. Another pressure stems from the employer’s emotions. Ris’s employer works in the financial field where business is down. ‘You can tell from his face.’ So Ris has to be alert all the time to avoid anything wrong. Even if she has finished all the work, she will still find some work to do just to save herself from being blamed on. She said sadly that she can only rest while going out for groceries.
Nevertheless, Ris still feels she is lucky enough to get enough masks and sanitizers from the employer, and can still take her day offs. Even though both employers are working at home, she still has her own room and almost her own space in the kitchen. Knowing many sisters have to buy masks herself or haven’t taken their day offs for months (Note: the Labour Department recently encourages foreign domestic workers to stay at home during their rest days), she is worried about the working condition and life of other migrant sisters under the epidemic.
Po Po: The Authority of Housekeeping
Ana (alias) is an Indonesian migrant worker who has just finished her 8-year contract with her previous employer. 8 years ago, her employer’s son was only 2 years old and the daughter was not even born. Now, the daughter is attending the second year of the primary school and she no longer needs a helper. Ana still misses them, especially the girl. ‘She is baby, fat just like me.’ Having a new employer, Ana still contacts them, but she hasn’t visited them for a while since the outbreak of Covid-19.
It takes some time to accommodate each other when Ana starts to take care of the grandma (po po) in this current family. Grandma has her own way of housekeeping and always asks Ana to follow. For example, living in Choi Hung, Ana obviously will do grocery shopping in the market downstairs. However, grandma asks her to go to Shum Shui Po because the groceries are cheaper there. Under the epidemic, travelling frequently by bus or MTR will increase the risk of being infected, but Ana has no choice but to go there once a week, otherwise grandma will blame her for wasting money. Grandma used to go for dim sum (yum cha) once a week, but now she always stays at home because of Covid-19. More conflicts arise. The kitchen even becomes the “battlefield”: Grandma will come in and give order whenever Ana is preparing the meals. Sometimes when Ana takes a break in the living room after cleaning, grandma will blame her for slacking off. It is hard for Ana to get along with her.
To better prevent the epidemic, Ana disinfects the flat twice a day. The bleach has cracked her skin of both hands. The routine caring work is also heavy. After doing massage for grandma and waiting her to finish watching TV, Ana can only rest at mid-night. Besides taking care of grandma, as Ana’ employer and his two brothers live next door, she also needs to cook for the three big families every Saturday night and can only sleep at 2:00 a.m. ‘I don’t have enough rest or sleep, so I easily feel ill. And the virus is out there…’ Poor health due to the heavy workload becomes a concern of most migrant domestic workers under the epidemic.
Hands of Ana
Ana拍下自己的雙手 Ana took a photo of her hands
It has been four and a half years since the daughter of Nina’s (alias) employer was born. As schools and interest classes are suspended now, Nina accompanies the girl at home. However, she needs to be more careful while cleaning to prevent the child taking in the smell of alcohol and bleach, so she usually disinfects the flat only when the girl is sleeping or taken out by her parents. The family will go hiking sometimes, but for most of the time, the couple work at home, which increases Nina’s workload. While she only needs to prepare breakfast and dinner before, she now has to cook for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Meanwhile, since she doesn’t need to wait for her employer from work, dinner starts earlier, she can also take an earlier rest.
We asked Nina to send us a photo that can show her work. She sent us her “bed”, which is a mattress only. Although this is her own room, it is filled with boxes and sundry items.
上個月，因爲僱主擔心口罩供應不足，沒有給Nina準備口罩，因此也不讓她放假。於是Nina托在印尼的丈夫寄了些口罩，才向僱主爭取到如常放假。同時，Ana和Nina同屬的印尼移民工工會（Indonesian Migrant Workers’ Union, IMWU）也張羅了不少口罩，派給不獲僱主提供口罩的移工和本地基層清潔工、保安、老人家。
Last month, due to the concern of mask shortage, Nina’s employers did not prepare masks for her, nor did they allow her to take a day off. She had to ask her husband in Indonesia to send her some masks. Since then, she was finally allowed to have her holidays. At that time, Indonesian Migrant Workers’ Union (IMWU), where Ana and Nina are both members, also started to collect masks and distribute them to migrant workers who do not get from their employers, as well as local grassroots cleaners, safety guards and the elderly.
Speaking of her employer’s daughter, Nina expressed her excitement even with her mask on. The girl will share all her food and snacks with Nina. When the family takes her out for dessert (Tong Shui), she always asks to reserve one for jeje (Note: Jeje is a Cantonese term used by Hong Kong family to refer to migrant domestic workers). Nina has two daughters, one is now 13 years old and the other is 10. Every time when she has a video call with her daughters, the girl seems jealous, but her two daughters like this “little sister” very much. Nina recalls the time when the girl was born, the female employer taught her to pat on the baby’s back to help her burp. But as there is no such practice in Indonesia, Nina was nervous and worried that she would hurt the baby. In fact, Nina’s younger daughter only turned one when she came to Hong Kong eight years ago. She had not even looked after her for long. Perhaps that’s why when she mentioned her employer’s daughter, she always said, ‘just like taking care of my daughter.’
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