Working Mothers and Foreign Domestic Helpers in Hong Kong - Papers & Essays



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Working Mothers and Foreign Domestic Helpers in Hong Kong


Most Hong Kong women, single or married, are working. If mothers want to work, they usually hire foreign helpers to help. Foreign domestic helpers are important to Hong Kong families, but there are pros and cons in hiring them. If the family does not handle this properly, the relationship between parents and children and the growth of the children will be badly affected. All family members and the foreign domestic helper must know their role in the family.

keywords: employment, foreign domestic helpers, Hong Kong, Parents-children relationship, Working women
A Working Women Society

Gender equality is relatively high in Hong Kong. As a university lecturer, I have a lot of opportunities to talk with female undergraduates. Many job-hunting students said: "I do not feel any discrimination in my job search. There is no constraint in my employment." and "I have never felt inferior as a female." By contrast, very few Japanese females can express similar feelings. The confidence of Hong Kong females comes from their high employment rate and educational background.

Hong Kong is a society of working women. According to the figures provided by the Hong Kong government, the actual number and percentage of working women in the entire working population in Hong Kong have continued to increase considerably, although the Hong Kong economy is stagnant. In the decade between 1999 and 2009, the working population of females jumped to 1,736,000 from 1,362,500. The average annual growth rate was 2.5%, much higher than 1.1%, that of the entire working population. The ratio of females in the working percentage increased from 49.2% to 53.5%. The government believes that the trend will continue and the percentage will reach 55.4% in 2026.

The educational level of working females has improved over the years. The ratio of university degree holders among working females increased from 25% in 1999 to 32% in 2009. In 2009, about 40% of professionals and managing staff were females. This was an impressive figure even by European and American standards, not to mention Asia.

A Society of Foreign Domestic Helpers

Hong Kong, like Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, is one of the places where overseas domestic helpers are received. There are 300,000 Indonesian and Philippine domestic helpers. Hiring domestic helpers is no longer an upper class or middle class practice, it is also part of the culture among ordinary families. In Japan, most females work full-time before marriage, quit a few years after for giving birth and go back to work as part-time employees when their children go to school. Hence the employment of Japanese females is an M-shaped curve. In Hong Kong, most females work fulltime before and after marriage and thus domestic helpers are recruited to do the housework and take care of the children.

According to the figures provided by the Hong Kong government, out of a population of 7 million in Hong Kong, about 8% are foreigners. By nationality, the top three come from Indonesia (156,319), the Philippines (144,463) and Thailand (28,067). The majority are live-in domestic helpers who work full-time. The minimum wage for a foreign domestic helper is 3902 Hong Kong dollars (about 507 U.S dollars). The host family provides food and accommodation. Most working females have a monthly salary around 10000 to 40000 HKD (about 1,300-5,200 U.S dollars) and thus hiring domestic helper can actually increase the family income.

Hong Kong is a society that puts emphasis on education and performance. Based on employment quality, men and women receive the same salary in the same post. This encourages females to work. A standard family in Hong Kong consists of father, mother, one child or sometime one grandparent. The parents work full-time and thus the domestic helper takes care of the child and the elderly. Foreign domestic helpers are a must for many Hong Kong families.

Role Switching in the Family

The traditional view that the husband earns the living and the wife takes care of the family is outdated in Hong Kong. Both husband and wife are full-time workers and thus the foreign domestic helper takes care of the family. Many children feel closer to their domestic helpers than their own parents. Dependence on a domestic helper undermines the independence of the children and the relationship between the parents and their children. Most Hong Kong parents have not understood the seriousness of this matter. Ms Derby Sim (Programme Development Director, Milestones Workshop), an expert on gifted and special needs education, frankly said: "As the parents are working full-time, the domestic helper takes the roles of housewife and mother such as taking care of the children and doing the housework. Many fathers do not see this as a problem." They support this idea because the status of females is high in Hong Kong and working full-time can increase the family income. However, there is no free lunch. If not handled properly, there will be role switching in the family with negative consequences.

Actually, there are drawbacks to hiring foreign domestic helpers. For instance, news about a helper hurting the baby or child is not uncommon. Many Hong Kong children rely too much on domestic helpers and they cannot do even simple things. They always think: "I have the helper to help me and she has to listen to me." Regarding reliance on foreign domestic helpers, Singapore is similar to Hong Kong. One or two decades ago, there was a Singaporean movie about the problem of hiring domestic helpers. In the movie, a child was kidnapped and he did not know how to take care of himself. One of the kidnappers said: "I should have kidnapped his domestic helper as well." Some female undergraduates in Hong Kong do not know how to cook or do the housework and they do not think it is a bad thing. One told me that "It is unfair that doing housework and cooking are female jobs. If necessary, we can simply hire a domestic helper."

To be fair, most of the Hong Kong ID holders (including immigrant from Mainland China etc.) who are hiring domestic helpers I know care about their children. Some take care of the children themselves and ask the domestic helper to do the housework. These are the interviews I conducted. Mrs. A is a full-time company employee. In order to avoid having her children rely too much on the domestic helper, she makes a timetable for her children, reminding them to do things themselves. Mrs. B, a part-time company employee, makes rules for her child and the domestic helper. Mrs. C, a teacher, spends time tutoring her child no matter how busy she is. In order to have her child respect others, she is always soft-spoken to the domestic helper and has the helper eat at the same table.

On the other hand, Mrs. D, a teacher, relies on the domestic helper to take care of her children. She hires a experienced and well-educated domestic helper. Mrs. E, a freelancer, prefers to hire a high-quality domestic helper who can educate her children. This attitude has become increasingly prevalent all over Hong Kong society. The traditional view that educating children is the responsibility of the parents has weakened. A young Hong Kong man, in a Japanese TV program, complained: "My mother often makes Demae Iccho (Japanese instant noodle)." Due to its convenience and good taste, Japanese instant noodles are well-received in Hong Kong families. Hong Kong people like to eat out and many eat breakfast in Hong Kong style coffee houses and canteens. Compared to the Japanese, Hong Kongers pay less attention to cooking home dishes. Eating Japanese instant noodles at home and eating out are very common.

Knowing Your Role in the Family

If the family hires a foreign domestic helper, they must define the role of each individual clearly so that it will not cause unwanted results. Derby Sim has identified three taboos in handling domestic helpers. First, the parents often scold the helper over minor things in front of their children. The children will not respect others and will become bossy to the helper, family members, classmates and teachers. Second, Parents and the helper have a bad relationship. The children will feel unsafe and confused. They tend to test the boundary of the adults. Third, the domestic helper is given too much power. This will undermine the authority of the parents and the children will not listen to their parents. This creates confusion in role playing.

Derby Sim gives the following eight tips to the family:

  1. The parents must not forget their role and should ask the domestic helper to assist them only.
  2. The parents hold the authority and the domestic helper follows the instructions of the parents.
  3. The parents have good communication with the helper, setting a good example for the children.
  4. The parents should set up rules for the family members and the helper to follow.
  5. The parents should put emphasis on their ties with children and should not rely too much on the helper.
  6. Do not give the domestic helper too much power.
  7. The parents should treat the helper with respect and should not scold her in front of the children.
  8. The parents should be appreciative and encouraging to the helper.

The children who are served by domestic helpers will be parents and the core members of Hong Kong society one day. With more females entering the workforce, Hong Kong will continue to introduce foreign domestic helpers. There is nothing wrong about females entering the workforce, but the parents, family members and the helper must know their own role in the family. This is the most important concern. If the parents have a harmonious relationship with the helper, it will have a positive impact on their children. They will learn the virtues of mutual respect, gratitude, politeness and thoughtfulness.

Miho Goda

Adjunct Assistant Professor, The Chinese University of Hong Kong (2001 to date); Part-time Lecturer, Shizuoka Sangyo University (2010 to date)
Region of Research: Historical Sociology, Study of Southeast Asia and Hong Kong Society, Ethnic Identity, Comparative Studies of the Ethnic Group and the Special Education.
Research Experience: Studied at the Graduate School of Sociology, National University of Singapore by the expense of the Japanese Government (1996 to 1998)
Teaching Experience: Part-time Lecturer, Konan Women's University, Sonoda Gakuen Women's University and National University of Singapore (1996 to 1998)
Education: Ph.D. in Sociology, Konan Women's University (1999)
Membership: The Japan Society for the Studies of Chinese Overseas, Japan-China Sociological Society
Publications: Goda Miho, Nihonjin to Chugokujin ga Tomo ni Tsukaeru Hattatsushogai Gaidobukku, Himawari, Hong Kong, 2011 etc.