It’s Sunday afternoon and my domestic helper, let’s call her Anne, just finished cleaning the apartment. I’m not normally home on Sunday afternoons to see her in action, but my roommate is in Thailand so I was asked to let her in. I try not to be home when Anne comes because three is definitely a crowd in my apartment and I feel like I would just get in her way, but seeing her today made me revisit how I feel about having a helper in the first place.
It’s weird for me to even say that I have a helper. From a young age, my siblings and I were taught to be very independent. I was cooking (albeit simple things like ramen and mac and cheese) and doing my own laundry by the time I was about 10 years old, so to have someone doing my dishes and washing my clothes is a really weird feeling. So why do I have one? Because it’s included in the rent.
In Hong Kong, there are two different kinds of helpers: local helpers, who can be hired part-time and follow the employment laws for Hong Kong people, and foreign domestic helpers (FDHs), who are mainly women from the Philippines or Indonesia and can only legally work in Hong Kong under a full-time contract with an employer who provides them with housing in their own home.
Their minimum wage is $4,110 a month, lower than Hong Kong’s minimum wage of $5,200, which is based on 160 hours per month (8 hours a day, 5 days a week). However, when FDHs are said to work “full-time”, this really means they are on the job all day everyday, and thanks to the lack of working regulation in Hong Kong, are known on average to work an astonishing 102 hours per week (17 hours per day, 6 days a week). This is more than double the legal maximum weekly working hours of other places such as the EU, Singapore, and China.
When I first came to Hong Kong, I was very much against the idea of having a helper because, as I mentioned before, I just felt like it was weird to have someone cleaning up after me. Also, I shouldn’t be so lazy and just be a responsible adult who does their own cleaning. I was afraid that having a helper would cause what little domestic skills I had to deteriorate.
Additionally, I’m kind of weird and don’t like people touching my things. Even though my room is generally messy, it’s an organised mess and I know where everything is. If a helper picked up after me, I would never be able to find anything! Lastly, and probably most importantly, I would find being a domestic helper to be pretty much my worst nightmare and I couldn’t imagine being in that position. I feel bad for people who are, in a sense, forced to pick this as their form of employment.
When I first found out that my rent included the cost of a part-time helper who would come once a week to clean the apartment, do our laundry and wash the dishes, I was half excited because I think doing laundry is the most dreadful thing in the world, and half wary because of the reasons listed above. But after living in Hong Kong for four years, I’ve been surprised to discover that I really enjoy having a helper. I am grateful that her service gives me the freedom to do more of the things I love and enjoy my time in Hong Kong. Though it only takes her about three hours to get through everything, it would probably take me the whole of Sunday to do the same work load (you should see how efficiently Anne hangs clothes!).
I’ve made it a point to get to know Anne and treat her well. I think it’s awful that there are people who treat their helpers really poorly and even look down on them. After all, Anne is another human being and deserves to be treated and respected like one. I’m proud to say that we have an enjoyable relationship where she tells me about her children and grandchild, even showing me pictures every once in a while. I also realised along the way that, yeah, maybe being a helper isn’t Anne’s dream job, but she is doing whatever it takes to support herself and her family. I have mad respect for that. She is paid well above minimum wage and I love knowing that this supplemental income is helping her live a more comfortable life.
So this a special thank you to all of the helpers out there and I just wanted you to know that I really appreciate everything you do.