In Hong Kong and a few other countries in Asia, we have access to affordable help in the form of ‘domestic helpers’ – typically women originating from some of the less developed nations in the region like Indonesia and Philippines. Domestic helpers are tasked with taking care of our homes including cleaning, cooking, taking care of elderly family members, but also pets and very commonly, our children.
I have always been certain that I do not want to be a full time mum because I enjoy having a career. When I was pregnant, I was not thrilled with the idea of hiring a helper to take care of our baby because it was not a concept that I’m used to. Having a stranger live with us, being our baby’s primary caregiver and essentially becoming a part of our lives was not appealing. I was also worried about our daughter becoming too spoilt and could grow up expecting to be waited on hand and foot. Last but not least, I felt that the arrangement was unfair for the helper and wasn’t sure how to achieve the balance between treating a helper fairly while protecting our interests.
After exploring different options and even going to the extremes of having our parents take turns living with us in HK (they’re based in the UK and Malaysia), we gave in and hired a helper. It was a learning process for us. Let’s start with the basics. The law in HK does not offer much protection for helpers. While employers must provide accommodation and food, the minimum requirement is rather basic. Given the tight living space in HK, it is very common for helpers to sleep in helper quarters which can barely fit a single bed or to sleep on a mattress in the living room.
In my opinion, one of the toughest things about being a helper is to be away from their families, including their children. By law, helpers get a day off each week, the statutory holidays and seven days of annual leave. Many helpers only go home at the end of their two year contracts due to cost constraints, unless their employers are generous enough to pay for their flights. Can you imagine only seeing your husband and children once every two years? Not surprisingly, many marriages fall apart because of this.
Despite being fed horror stories about abusive, exploiting and thieving helpers, I went into this arrangement with idealistic views, thinking that I will try my best to provide a comfortable working environment for my helper. Unfortunately, it was not an easy feat and things didn’t turn out the way I expected. First of all, we struggled with cultural and religious differences. Our helper is a devout Christian and set off to preach to me about religion. Within a couple of months, she also told me that our daughter hasn’t been sleeping well because there is a spirit living in our home. She chose to share this piece of information with me at night during a weekend when my husband was away. I slept very poorly that night and woke up feeling cranky, so I told her that all talk about God and spirits are banned.
Our helper is very experienced, having been doing this for 20 years. Our daughter took to her pretty quickly and they got along well. However, our helper took it upon herself to educate me on how things should be done, especially when it came to taking care of my daughter. She also made it a habit to tell me how wonderful her previous employer was, what expensive food they had and the different activities that they sent their son to. It never occurred to me that not only do I have to deal with social pressure at work and in my mummy network, but also at home from my helper!
We were relaxed about her taking time off, letting her go home twice within the first year and allowing her to have time off occasionally when we were at home, as long as she had done her cleaning duties. My logic is that if I treat someone well, naturally, our relationship should develop positively and my goodwill would be reciprocated. Unfortunately, this did not happen either. In the rare occasions where we asked whether she could come home earlier on a Sunday to help take care of our daughter (e.g. to allow my husband and I to attend a wedding), she said no.
We also caught her lying on numerous occasions. These were just white lies and if she had told me the truth, I would have just said ‘It’s ok, but please don’t do it again’. My husband and I have sat down with her a couple of times, telling her the key things to improve on and also reassuring her that she can be honest with us. However, nothing has changed and if anything, things have been getting from bad to worse. I have been hesitant to replace her because our daughter likes her and constant change is probably not healthy for a two year old. However, given that the trust in our relationship has been broken, I see no way of reversing this and decided to hire a new helper.
What have I learned from this experience? I don’t think that my helper is a bad person. Perhaps her previous employers did not treat her in a reasonable manner and she learned that lying was the best way to survive. I recognize that it’s a tough job and given the choice, I doubt anyone would choose this path. However, I’m also letting my helper into our home and entrusting her with our child. I invited her to eat with us, I don’t treat her with double standards and I’ve always been courteous to her. With our new helper, I am no longer as naive and we will start by playing by the book and see how it goes from there. It’s funny how I can manage people at work but can’t figure out how to manage a helper at home.