In places where domestic helpers are common, they often come up in discussions among people who employ them. In Hong Kong, where they are also the subject of policy decisions, they make news. Recently, a couple was jailed for abusing their helper in a case that shocked many people. Even more recently, the government raised the minimum wage for helpers by HK$100. Helpers were pissed with the paltry raise, and many employers were happy.

Some newspaper columnists used the occasion to air their views on how Hong Kong should be weaned off helpers because do-your-own-work and take-care-of-your-own-children. After reading two columns by (male) columnists along these lines, and having heard this line of argument around a lot, I feel the need to air my own views:

  1. Many people from places where domestic helpers are not the norm express the view that there is something demeaning and lazy about hiring another human being to do your household chores. I do not understand this logic. First, if household work and child caring are useful occupations, as feminists have long argued, then why should hiring someone to do the same be an issue? There is nothing intrinsically demeaning about the work that helpers do, such as cooking, cleaning, looking after children, etc seeing as many people do it themselves. Second, why does do-it-yourself extend only to these specific chores that have been outsourced to helpers? Why not make your own furniture, grow your own vegetables, wash your own clothes by hand, never eat a meal in a restaurant? Modern life is predicated on outsourcing to specialists or machines. I see my helper as a skilled individual who can take over tasks that she does better or so that I can focus my energy elsewhere.
  2. Many people are adamant that only parents should be the primary caregivers of their children. I find it particularly irritating when these adamant people are men, presumably men who would not give up their jobs and access to the source of money and thus financial security to do said childrearing because: a) I earn more money so it’s better for the wife to quit her job and engage in the noble profession of raising our offspring b) I don’t earn substantially more money, but it’s still better for the woman to do the childrearing because mother’s know best, okay fine, because of breastfeeding (never mind that that goes on for about a year, because after that child cannot adjust to father, or is it the other way around?) Of course, it’s also irritating when women make these arguments.

In this regard, the availability of domestic helpers in Hong Kong has had a huge impact on the participation of Hong Kong women in the labour force and their access to higher paid jobs. The number of Hong Kong female university graduates is equal or more to that of men, with women having slightly better results. And yet, Hong Kong men were loathe to be stay-at-home dads. The dilemma was solved by the helper, leading to a growth spurt in female participation in the workforce.

Mainly, though, I disagree with the premise that only parents should be the primary caregivers of children. Parents in the West who miraculously manage everything are held up as the examples that we must all follow. There are largely two kinds of parents in the US, for example, as far as I can tell. The ones where one parent stays at home fulltime (usually the woman, see above) and the ones where both parents work and the child usually goes to daycare when the parents are working, sometimes from as early as three months old. I will deal with the problematic nature of generalising the former later, but why is daycare considered to be the best option? It may be for some families, but why is daycare preferable to a child staying at home with a single devoted caregiver? There are advantages to daycare like government checks and more than one person looking after the kids so ostensibly checks and balances on any possible abuse of children, but there are also disadvantages like children falling sick easily, the adult-child ratio which is never as good as one-on-one. In any event, daycare is still someone else looking after your children.

With regards to the former, there are many reasons both parents might choose to work fulltime, a primary one being financial needs. In Hong Kong, housing prices are so expensive that the average family would not be able to run without two incomes. While there is a free public school system, many parents are disillusioned with it, and those that would like to choose alternatives find that it is a huge expense. These factors have contributed to a low birthrate in Hong Kong.

Financial needs apart, many people find that looking after a child 24/7, even their own, is not their ideal scenario. And while we are supposed to be ashamed of ourselves for employing helpers, there is actually a long tradition of children being looked after by people other than their parents. In fact, there may be more robust traditional of multiple caregivers in societies like India where parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles (in a joint family), neighbours, etc. pitched in, giving parents a break. The idea that it must be the parents and them alone seems to be a fairly recent one, and while that in itself is not good reason to discount it, I don’t really see the point of restricting care of children primarily to parents. And if others have historically pitched in, then the fact that one might opt to pay for this help should not necessarily devalue the quality of the help.

That said, a huge immigrant labour force poses its own social and ethical conundrums. It is very important for the government to regulate the conditions of work to avoid exploitation. Hence, the minimum wage and labour conditions pertaining to the employment of a helper. While helpers are indignant that the minimum wage for helpers is lower than the minimum wage for other categories of work (although the minimum wage for helpers was fixed way before the minimum wage for other categories of work), the fixing of a minimum wage at a level too high would defeat the purpose altogether as the families which really a helper for financial reasons would not be able to afford one. Moreover, a minimum wage does not mean that people cannot voluntarily pay their helpers more. Some of us do, although I agree that this doesn’t happen that often. There are also other problematic conditions in Hong Kong such as the legal requirement that helpers live-in which creates 24/7 working hours. Personally, I think this condition should be removed, but given the housing prices in Hong Kong, it is argued that it would result in slum-like housing popping up for these workers.

My main point is that dismissing the need for helpers is too easily done. The alternative of parents doing it all themselves does not seem ideal to me. Especially when the main responsibility of said going it alone almost always turns out to be the woman.

I also don’t think domestic helpers are the ideal and only childcare solution. But it seems that in the absence of this profession, day care has been adopted as the major alternative, and I don’t see how that is better though it is a valid option and Hong Kong should have more of these. I would prefer flexible working hours, longer maternity and paternity leaves, basically more options for people who want to chose to not leave their children with other people. However, I also think choosing to leave your children with “other people”, never mind that the other person becomes like a quasi family member, is okay as well as long as the “other person”, whether your relative or employee or a service-provider, is capable and well compensated.