Dr. Nicole Constable, the author of ‘Born out of Place’ and ‘Maid to Order in Hong Kong’, shares her research on Hong Kong’s domestic workers. She discusses their struggles to maintain a balance between family life and work, the decision some domestic workers make to work illegally in Hong Kong, and the social exclusion and discrimination they often face.
HK Helpers: A premise of your book is how difficult it is for domestic workers to be both a good worker and a good wife/mother/daughter. How does the requirement that domestic workers ‘live-in’ affect the family life of domestic workers even when they are already far from home?
Nicole Constable: It depends a lot on the conditions of the live in situation. If the situation is good and the worker has time off and privacy and enough hours to sleep and the ability to keep in touch with a family back home, it sometimes isn’t too bad – especially if she is being paid her legal salary. If she has, in the worst situation, no privacy and is not allowed to use a phone or contact her children or spouse during the week, it can be a serious problem for them. It means they don’t have the same support network and they are not as happy as they would be as workers if they were able to live out or have more privacy and time to themselves.
If they were able to live out, it wouldn’t be as much of a problem because they can keep in touch with family members regularly on their own, without someone overhearing what they’re saying or misinterpreting their tone of voice. The contact with people back home is such an important source of support and pleasure and the well-being of workers that if they were able to have live out or have better conditions as live-in, they would better balance the life of being a worker and still being a family member at home.
The problem is, often they are expected to be workers 24-7 or be on call as workers 24-7 and the live in situation perpetuates that kind of set-up. If they were allowed to live out, I think potentially they would be much better and much happier workers that have more balanced lives.
HKH: Did the women you interviewed complain about their living conditions in Hong Kong?
NC: My earlier book, Maid to Order in Hong Kong, was based partly on interviews with them and speaking with women at the Mission for Migrant workers and I heard many, many, many complaints about work conditions and housing conditions and I saw many pictures of very unpleasant places where people were forced to sleep. I kept in touch with many different organizations and people in the wider domestic worker community that had a lot of access to what I would consider very inappropriate housing.