Maid in Hong Kong: The commodification of intimacy

Domestic workers in Hong Kong. Source:  'istolethetv', Flickr
https://www.flickr.com/photos/istolethetv/4579844255Domestic workers in Hong Kong. Source: 'istolethetv', Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/istolethetv/4579844255

On Sundays, the streets and parks of Hong Kong’s central business district are filled with activity and vitality, presenting a display of the city’s character distinctive from the monotony of the weekly grind. Officially termed ‘domestic workers’ and colloquially referred to as ‘helpers,’ tens of thousands of predominantly Filipino and Indonesian migrant women occupy the city’s public spaces, assembling in cardboard boxes to create makeshift private spaces for socializing; sharing food they have cooked; practicing and performing dance routines and songs. Skyscrapers of prominent global banks and financial institutions, lavish hotels and designer shops tower above them, a juxtaposition that is archetypical of Hong Kong society. The narrative of these migrant women as the product of a harsh, neoliberal world order that has coerced them into participating in an exploitative global economy has been well documented. But such flattened narratives fail to reflect the significant nuances of migrant women’s experiences and subjectivities. Almost exclusively, women’s primary motivation for migration and a factor dictating their lives in multifaceted ways are far more intimate forces: obligations to kin. On Sundays, Hong Kong’s streets and parks provide a safe, communal space for women to enact a weekly ritual proclaiming their identities as people, as women, as Filipino or Indonesian, as mothers and wives, all above and beyond their status of migrant workers.

In structural terms, these women are a regional manifestation of global trends in the ‘feminisation of migration.’ Traditionally belonging to the private sphere, intimate relations of kinship, care and love have become commodified as they enter a global market for care labor. In the context of Hong Kong, female migrants take jobs in the domestic sphere, performing household duties such as cooking, cleaning, childcare, etc. Nicole Constable, an academic who has written extensively on the plight of domestic workers in Hong Kong identifies how these social relations and those who provide them have come to be dehumanized: treated like a kind of commodity that is bought and sold; advertised and packaged; objectified and fetishized. Such trends are most strikingly depicted by agencies that recruit women from their home countries and market them to employers in Hong Kong. To become a domestic worker, most women will undergo a homogenizing training process that produces an exemplary hard-working, compliant and subservient worker. Constable formulates this as the creation of a ‘packaged product,’ ready for consumption. One woman I knew acutely identified that ‘when they see you as a helper, it is easier for them to put you down, to step on your ego.’

Analyn was a woman I knew and interviewed. Recounting the circumstances of her first employment contract twenty years ago, she tells me how she was under constant CCTV surveillance and her passport had been withheld upon her arrival. She revealed to me occasions when her employers would go on holiday and lock her in the apartment with scarce food; or when they would deny her of her weekly day off work, threatening to take fifty Hong Kong Dollars off her salary for every five minutes that she was late. ‘It is hard for a helper when she is abused,’ Analyn told me, ‘the first time it happened, when my employer lost his temper, I was terrified, I was crying the entire day, my body shaking. They took me to a doctor who gave me medicine to calm down’. Analyn’s emotional response dictated to her employers that she couldn’t be treated like a commodity or robot; she is not impassive. More tellingly, Analyn told me how she progressively learned to defend herself and her rights, threatening to go to the labor department in instances of injustice. Her small everyday acts began to represent the parameters of resistance available to assert herself and her freedom beyond the rhetoric of a ‘trafficked victim.’

Finding themselves in oppressive structures of power, migrant women’s agency may be observed in the minutest of gestures. Take for instance the way women occupy public spaces on Sundays. Indeed, my conversations with women illuminated the tremendous courage and strength they embody in the face of adversity. Another helper I knew, Darna, once described to me the following conversation between herself and her employer, concerning the renewal of her contract: ‘I told them that once my contract has ended, I am choosing to leave them. This made my boss very angry, who threatened; ‘you know I am a rich person, a very rich person, so rich that I can hire someone to kill you.’ I was terrified, my face turned so pale, and I was shaking. I replied saying; ‘oh yes sir, you are a very rich man, but money cannot buy happiness, do you think I will be happy in your house?’

Women’s migration is almost exclusively motivated by kinship-oriented needs. The majority of women I have known and interviewed were the primary breadwinners of their families, sending back remittances to support their extended families in their home countries. Their narratives, driven by bonds of intimacy, are distinctively situated within broader global processes that show an immense capacity to change the very nature of these relations. Responsibilities of care and love are transplanted across borders, where the objects of intimacy are no longer confined within the nuclear family but take on new arrangements, manifesting in multifaceted relationships; between mother and child; helper and child; helper and employer.

What most starkly demonstrated this to me was Analyn’s recount of her convoluted relationship with her employer after her contract had ended. The family had moved to America and on their first visit back to Hong Kong, her boss invited her to a dinner with his in-laws. She told me ‘I went for the kids’, who were struggling in the absence of the helper who had raised them; ‘the kids refused to eat because I wasn’t around, and wouldn’t listen to their mother. They would constantly message and ask to see me on video chat’. That sad irony of the situation is that the love and care that helpers give their employers’ children to a great extent represent the commitments they are unable to give their own children. In an essay entitled ‘Love and Gold,’ Hochschild defines this as a ‘global heart transplant,’ where we ‘can speak of love as an unfairly distributed resource – extracted from one place and enjoyed somewhere else.’ Herein is the most obvious example of the ‘transnational intimacies.’

Domestic workers’ relationships with their employers vary; it is undeniably difficult to maintain a conventional worker-employer contractual relationship when these individuals are so acutely a part of each other’s life. Describing her current employers, Analyn demonstrated to me the unique kind of intimacy engendered between family and helper. ‘I raise these children, its hard sometimes when this is what you do everyday, but when I see that the family is accepting me as I am, I like to work for them, you have to try your best to be the best for them.’

Intimacy between employer and helper can take different guises. Analyn described to me a private conversation between herself and her ex-boss. He had confided in her that he struggled with his very overbearing in-laws who disapproved of his relationship with their daughter. ‘In private, he cried to me and said ‘you teach me how to deal with my in-laws, even if you are just a helper; you are so strong to stand up for your rights. Money cannot buy happiness and I cannot find the happiness in my heart’’. Reflecting on this, Analyn tells me; ‘in my heart as a helper I let them learn little things that will stay with them and I am proud of that.’

It is here I draw my conclusion and draw on Constable who astutely articulates that ‘Filipinas’ professions of love serve to counteract the stigma of their work to define their transnational subjectivities.’ These professions of love take form in the most unexpected of circumstances and relationships. The commodification of intimacy runs deep, but it does not make the multidimensional relationships I have explored any less authentic, especially when they are a source of agency for those deemed powerless.