Give helpers the respect they deserve
The "foreign domestic worker" identity is so overriding that their roles as women, mothers, Hong Kong residents, and employees are always overlooked.
This is a thought-provoking message I got in a recent Equal Opportunities Commission panel discussion from a foreign domestic worker who spoke on the intersectional challenges they face as working women.
With their workplace being their home, the boundaries of being "on duty," "off duty," and "on standby" for them are often blurred. Employers and their families may not be always mindful of the helper's need for personal space and rest. To some of them, working hours start as soon as they wake up till bedtime, with no genuine rest until Sunday. Those who are mothers are unable to take care of their own children. This can take a toll on their emotional well-being. We have also encountered cases of unlawful dismissal of pregnant and sick domestic workers. A recent appalling example is some domestic helpers being expelled from home and sleeping in the streets after employers found out they tested positive to Covid-19.
Foreign domestic workers face multiple challenges despite being the backbone of most families in Hong Kong. During the epidemic, without their help, many families could not cope with maintaining extra hygiene while supporting children's home lessons. Regrettably, with their contribution to us, they are often looked down on. It is not news that they are cold-shouldered, disrespected in most aspects of life, and subjected to discrimination in public spaces or when receiving services.
I still believe that many employers are mindful of their obligations and maintain a good relationship with their helpers while fighting the virus as one. However, we must confront the fact that discrimination against them is sometimes blatant. There is surely room for improvement in policy and regulation, which is worthwhile for discussion in a separate article. Another key area raised in our panel discussion that needs our attention is the stereotype. To address this issue, in public messaging as well as formal education, foreign domestic workers should not be simply portrayed as servants from certain foreign countries but also Hong Kong residents and employees to unleash our manpower.
The media can play an important part too by describing them from multiple perspectives and avoid accentuating their racial features thus creating stereotyping. Instead of reinforcing stereotypical narratives of foreign domestic workers, they should be presented as individuals with diverse identities like everyone else.
Foreign domestic helpers are an integral part of Hong Kong and their contribution should never be undermined. Treat them with respect as one would expect.
The article is published in The Standard on 21 April 2022.