Is “Domestic Helper” a Loaded Term? 1

The term “domestic helper” has achieved near-universality in Hong Kong, but not all “helpers” are happy with its connotations of subservience.

In a recent survey conducted by HK Helpers Campaign in Central and Victoria Park, 72 per cent (60 out of 83) foreign domestic workers from the Philippines and Indonesia said they preferred to be called “domestic worker” instead of “domestic helper.” Those preferences are at odds with the terminology used by the government and major newspapers like the South China Morning Post, which exclusively use “helper.”

Activists and NGOs say “helper” suggests a lower and unequal role for workers, even while advocacy groups like the Campaign continue to feature it in their titles because it is more recognizable.

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When asked to explain their choices, domestic workers who preferred “worker” gave longer and more politically sensitive rationales than those answering “helper.” That was especially the case with Filipinos, most of whom speak English fluently. English is less common among Indonesians.

“We are not slaves, we are workers,” one Filipina said, echoing a rally cry used at local protest marches. Another said that the term “helper” was “degrading.”

Many reacted to suggestions about class and status inherent in the two words. “Helper is more vulgar to pronounce,” said a woman in Central. “It has a low profile…it is just inside the home, but worker suggests you are equal to your employer. It is higher than helper, helper is only working in a certain way or a certain place.”

Those who preferred “helper” said it was more specific in its description of their roles inside the household.

“I prefer helper because I’m a helper in Hong Kong,” said one. Another said she preferred it “because that’s what I’m doing here.”

A handful said the connotations of “helper” did not have to be negative. “We are not ashamed to be domestic helpers. It’s like family. They treat you like you are one of them.”

In a follow-up, nearly all of those who preferred “helper” and were able to provide a reason had had only positive experiences with employers.

Many of those surveyed dismissed the notion that there was any difference between the two terms. But domestic worker activists and NGOs agree that the way work is talked about is important.

“The term ‘helper’ has the implication that they are not equal to others workers in society, but rather are subordinate to others,” said Doris Lee, chairperson of advocacy group Open Door. “The fact that they are women, and are from countries regarded as less developed, can further the social marginalization of those ‘helpers’ and depreciation of their rights.”

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Photo: Amnesty International

David Bishop, co-founder of the Fair Employment Agency, a non-profit which aims to restore a sense of ethics to a corrupt business model, said his agency uses the term domestic worker “as much as possible.”

“We do that because it is more internationally recognized, and because we believe it better characterizes the great contributions these women and men make, and the legal obligations that the state and employers have toward them.”

In a Quartz article last year, Adwina Antonio, executive director of Bethune House, a shelter for abused domestic workers, was more direct.

“Migrant domestic workers are being treated as modern day slaves,” Antonio said. “They do dirty jobs. That means they can be treated badly. They are not treated as workers, they are treated as helpers.”

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But “domestic worker” faces challenges in achieving greater currency. It is not as friendly to online searches as “domestic helper,” a term that appears largely exclusive to Hong Kong and Singapore. And many say it simply feels too formal.

“What I really really like in ‘domestic helper’ is the ‘help,’ because they are, they’re a huge help,” said Sarah Bagley, manager of the certifiably ethical employment agency Maid for You, which makes a point of not charging domestic workers who use its service to match with employers. “I understand that we want something more official, however I think it’s frigid.”

Bagley went on to say that another term, “maid,” was the least preferable of all. “It hits the wrong button for me. Maid has a negative connotation.” When asked why she used the term in the name of her agency, she conceded that she was fond of wordplay and that “maid,” like “helper,” is more likely to turn up in Internet searches. “So I guess that brings it down to marketing purposes.”

“That being said, we never refer to helpers as ‘maids’ on our website, ever.”

  • MW

    This all comes back to personal connotations around words. This is all connected to culture as well. Where I come from ‘worker’ is the most vulgar word you could use for someone because it depicts menial labor. If there is no other possible title that can be used for a person’s area of employment they would be referred to simply as a ‘worker.’ ‘Worker’ means that person has no skills and is only able to just do ‘work’–they don’t get the respect of any better title. ‘Maid’ is also not a fitting word to describe what most of these women do. A ‘maid’ comes into your house and cleans up–they wash your dishes, mop your floor and then they leave. What a ‘helper’ does is so much more than that. In our household, the woman we employ (and have employed for nearly 6 years) is a ‘household manager’–that is precisely what she does. She not only cleans, cooks and rears children for us but she overseas our entire household. This is an area of employment that requires a very specific and elevated skill set.

    However, not every ‘helper’ in this city has that sort of skill set. Not every person who comes to work in HK can manage a household. That’s why many people who look for qualified employees are sorely disappointed. Just because a woman happens to be able to get some sort of work visa and enter into HK does not certify or guarantee her skill set. Before our employee came to HK she actually managed a restaurant and has a degree in management. This is a far cry from many women who may not have such experience or may have some degree on paper but no proven experience.

    What I’m trying to say is that not every ‘helper’ (or whatever name she wishes to be referred to) is all that amazing. Some ladies are great. Some are very poor workers with even worse attitudes. I think it’s up to the individual employer-employee to decide how to negotiate the working contract. For women who are ‘diamonds in the rough’ they will have no problem finding great employers–I recently mentioned a friend who was looking for work and in 3 days got more than 50 responses from employers willing and able to pay far above market standard with extra benefits just for not having to deal with the hassle of trying out employees who are potential problems from the get-go (this is SOOO common in HK–lots of ‘helpers’ really are here to take advantage of people!)

    I look forward to more balanced reporting on this issue. It’s great to hear from the ‘helpers” point of view but I look forward to a real discussion of what it is like to be an employer in HK.