Attitudes / Culture / Expat Life / Helpers / Hong Kong / Lifestyle / Living in Hong Kong

The Help: Helper vs Servant – the Extremists

I wanted to re-visit the world of domestic helpers as it is a topic that fascinates me, despite the fact I find it terribly difficult to write about. The topic of domestic help is so individually opinionated and vast in scope.

So let me pose a question to you:

If you had the luxury of a live-in helper how would you treat her?

Hong Kong is one of the few countries in the world where live-in domestic help is common place. I feel privileged to have a helper in my home and we treat her with the respect and dignity any employer would place on their employee.

However, some people in Hong Kong treat helpers as second rate citizens. I’m not talking about immigration rules here; I’m not interested in the political debate. What I am talking about is work conditions and expectations. The result of some extreme employer attitudes effectively turn helpers under their employ into virtual shells of themselves – robots programmed to follow schedules – unthinking and shallow. I like to think of these particular employers as “extremists”.

Let’s look at a ridiculous and scary example of a potential helpers day (as required by her “extremist” employer):

5.30 am – Wake Up and toilet/shower. 5.45 am – iron clothes. 6 am prepare breakfast. 6.30 am wake and feed children. 7 am put children on school bus. 7.15 am prepare clothes for maam and sir for work. 7.30 am serve breakfast for maam and sir. 7.35 stand in line at taxi queue in front of building holding first spot. 8 am wash car. 9 am wash clothes. 9.15 am clean bathrooms. 10.15 am make beds, sweep, vacuum and mop all floors in the house. 11.15 am prepare lunch for maam and sir to come home to. hang out clothes 12 noon – serve lunch/eat lunch. 12.30 pm wash windows inside and out. 1.30 pm clean dishes 1.45 pm polish silver 2.20 pm dust house. 2.30 pm pick up children from school bus. 2.45 pm serve children snack and prepare to take them to first activity of the afternoon. 3 pm take children to activity. 4 pm take children to second activity. 5 pm bring children home and bath them. 5.30 pm prepare dinner for children while children do homework. 6 pm feed children 6.30 pm wash children’s dishes and oversee homework. 6.45 pm prepare dinner for adults. immediately heat and serve once they have walked through the door. 7.15 pm wash dishes. 7.30 pm clean kitchen. 8 pm fold washing and do ironing. Be at beckon call of maam and sir and children until the go to bed, at which point you may sleep.

Extremist employers believe a helper should have a set schedule to follow from the time she wakes up until she goes to bed – not a minute should be wasted. Many of these people even go to the extremes of writing up a daily and weekly schedule and expecting their helper to follow it to the utmost letter. Can you imagine working in an office job where you are told exactly what you are expected to do – right down to the amount of time you are allowed to shower or spend in the bathroom?

Then, when an unexpected event happens in those homes, the extremist employer complain because their helper was unable to respond to the change or scenario their helper was confronted with. If you’ve been programmed to do a routine over and over, day after day, in a specific and set way (and in some cases told NOT to think) without any self worth or responsibility to make informed decisions on your own is it any wonder these helpers can’t respond to change?

Fear is undoubtedly a big factor in how these women become so devout in their utter servitude. I once asked my helper to ask another helper why she stood for at least 1/2 an hour every morning holding the first spot in the queue for a taxi in front of our building for her employer who was upstairs reading the paper. Her response was “Because I am told to. I don’t want to loose my job.”

Both my helper and I were gobsmacked. There was simply no more to it than “That is my employers wishes and I do what they say so I won’t be fired.”

Would you make someone who works for you go to a taxi stand to hold the first spot in the line until you feel like coming down just because you can? Unless it was an utter emergency (ie racing my sick child to hospital) I certainly wouldn’t – I would consider it abusing the privilege, but also demeaning to turn a lady there to help make my household run into a veritable doorstop.

Would you make someone who works for you wash your car every single day, rain, shine or typhoon?

Would you make your employee carry your handbag and walk two paces behind you while you walk to your car? or walk behind you laden down with bags of groceries you have just purchased?

How about making your helper hang or climb out a window 20 stories or more up from street-level to wash the windows every day or two? (without a harness I might add)

Would you insist your employee remain awake until just before you are ready to go to bed and make them clean all the bathrooms down on a nightly basis?

Would you time your helpers toilet breaks and knock on the door if you felt she was taking too long?

These are some of the stories I have heard (from employers I might add) and seen first hand. Is that a helper? Or is that a servant bordering on slave?

At what point is exerting expectations on a person taking their job description too far?

It saddens and scares me that for some domestic helpers this is the life of servitude they live with every day of their working life in Hong Kong just to send every penny earned back to their families in the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh. Some are so afraid to loose their jobs (and potential loss of income) they won’t look for another employer.

I admit it – I don’t understand why people treat their helpers in this way and with such strict control to the point of bordering on what I consider loss of freedom. I need to also mention no one ethnicity is guilty of this strict attitude. I have seen Chinese, Australians, British, Indians, Jewish and more .. all treat their helpers with a consistant iron fist in my time in Hong Kong. Is this attitude towards helpers stemming from the fact an employer has had a bad experience previously? Is the attitude because a helper is employed in Hong Kong under a different class of visa to everyone else? Is it because they are in our homes we feel the need to completely dominate them to maintain our own self esteem and control? Is it just a subconscious aspect of insecurities played out on those we see as most accessible?

I would love to understand why some people become so dictatorial, but how do you bring it up in conversation.

“Oh, hey, I see you’ve put the fear of god into your helper. Why is that?” just doesn’t seem like the right thing to ask.

Is a salary of under HK$4,000 (AU$570.80 a month, US$515) worth that kind of servitude? Certainly not in the western world, and I hazard to wonder what friends of these extremist employers back in their homelands would think of the treatment they befall their helpers. I know in Sydney it would be met with disgust.

One of the qualities I appreciate in our helper is her ability to think, not only for her everyday responsibilities but outside the box as and when she sees need. I don’t need to give her a schedule to follow – she knows what does and doesn’t need to be done based on the general guidelines we discussed when she started with us and the dynamics of our family. She can make the household requirements flexible to fit in around various changes in each day. If she sees something out of place, rather than letting it fester, she acts on it – whether it be making a change herself or talking to us about it. This is particularly important as we have kids and things happen that do change our schedules with very little notice. She can alter her routine without feeling like someone has disrupted a robotic sequence; she doesn’t get flustered. She isn’t afraid to let me know when there are issues or changes.

Perhaps the difference between our household and those of ‘the extremists’ is that we have a two way communication process in place … or maybe I’m just dictator enough on my kids I don’t need to ‘control’ our helper.

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