Michael Holmes

“You spoiled internationals, you all basically have slaves,” were the unprovoked words that came out of the mouth of a drunk first year late one night.

It was a slap in the face that has unsettled me ever since.

Yaya was the woman who woke me up in the morning before school and, as I squirmed impatiently in my seat, took the time to braid my hair with the pink ribbons I so cherished. Yaya was the woman who carefully sewed each strand of yarn hair back onto my Raggedy Ann doll after I decided — and immediately regretted — to give her a very unwarranted shave. Yaya was the woman who, before I knew how to write properly, would help me spell out each night’s dinner choices so that I could be the “waitress” for my mum and dad.

Unlike many children growing up in cultures where live-in domestic helpers and babysitters are the norm, Yaya was never a replacement for my parents. As busy as they both were, my mum and dad always gave me more than enough attention and were never afraid to shower me with love. When I awoke in the middle of the night crying from a nightmare, it was my dad whom I’d call for; when I fell and scraped my knee, my mum would come running.

My relationship with Yaya, however, was different — she fell somewhere in the grey area between parent and peer. She was the only adult in my life who received my cheeky giggles and annoying games not with an exasperated “Aiya, Hana, don’t be so naughty,” but with a sigh and reciprocative tickles. It was Yaya who took me to ice skating, ballet and art lessons; who somehow managed to clean, cook and play with me all at the same time; who’d squish my cheeks and kiss my forehead good night, even though she couldn’t do the same for her own children.

It was Yaya who heroically sacrificed raising her own kids to care for the baby of two perfect strangers an ocean and a half away.

Yaya is one of 370,000-plus foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong — an industry dominated by migrant Filipino and Indonesian women. On Sundays and public holidays, hundreds of thousands of women sit shoulder to shoulder on plastic mats or flattened sheets of cardboard in the shadow of the city’s opulence. They relax amid the ever-pervasive blanket of humidity and the vibrant city chorus, injecting new life into Hong Kong’s streets and transforming their borrowed city into a home away from home. The juxtaposition of glowing “Gucci” signs, five-star hotels and austere bank buildings with the sea of chattering, dancing women is an unforgettably unique portrait of my home.

Born in the 1970s as a vestige of the “mui tsai” system of domestic servitude in colonial Hong Kong, the flood of South Asian foreign domestic helpers into the city has only grown since. Dutifully supporting both the city’s economy and her children, helpers have become an irremovable — and for the most part, deeply cherished — part of the city’s fabric. However, despite their significance, one doesn’t have to scratch hard at the veneer to find that those filling the city’s streets are the fortunate ones. For many helpers, the reality that lurks behind this facade of prosperity is an unforgiving horror.

Arguably one of Hong Kong’s biggest systemic failings is its treatment of the migrant domestic workers it relies so heavily on. While not widespread, these failings leave room for unchecked abuse, abandoning victims in atrocious positions with little access to help and few means of escape. One in six of the city’s migrant domestic workers is subjected to forced labor, and one in seven of these women is considered by international law a victim of human trafficking. Nonetheless, these statistics do imply that five out of six helpers enjoy human rights and dignities.

It wasn’t until that Wednesday post-Woads trip to GHeav that I was attacked for having been raised by a helper. It might sound naive, but that night I was struck with the realization that something I had taken for granted my whole life was interpreted differently by my new American friends.

“Excuse me, no we don’t, and please don’t insinuate we do.” My friend jumped into defense mode as I sat there dumbfounded.

“Yaya” means caretaker or Auntie in Tagalog, the language spoken in much of the Philippines. To my classmates at Yale, however, Yaya translated not into ‘auntie’ but servant and was imbued with a negativity that I did not associate with someone so close to me.

The modern-day employment of domestic helpers is not the same as the global history of forced servitude. Yes, terrifying cases emerge, and with these cases, I believe the parallel drawn to slavery or human trafficking is absolutely valid. And yes, the world of migrant domestic work is not rosy, but to equate that to slavery not only aggravates what is otherwise a very respectable profession, but also does a disservice to the severity of genuine slavery. While in certain countries the employment of a live-in nanny or housekeeper might be a sign of breathtaking privilege in many places across Asia, Africa and Europe, it is not.

I personally view immigrating to work to support your family with an undying admiration. To leave your own children to go raise someone else’s, to give your own time and energy to fund your sibling’s education or to help with your family’s economic debt is without a doubt a courageous act.

This is not to say, however, that I’m condemning the entire globalized profession, nor am I trying to sugarcoat the less-than idyllic reality many helpers face. Rather, what I am trying to grapple with, and hopefully one day work to change, is why there is room for unchecked abuse to occur in the first place — especially in the 21st century in one of the world’s leading metropolises.

A swirling, entangled profusion of unforgiving policies simmers in the background of the rosy face Hong Kong presents to the world. These laws have the ability to not only suppress helpers, but can go as far as to create a privatized, hidden space for unchecked abuse to blossom. Crucially, the city’s Standard Employment Contract enforces a “live-in” rule which makes the abuse — when it arises — invisible. This rule, which forces helpers to reside within the walls of their employers’ homes, has the effect of negating the few laws, such as mandatory periods of rest, that work in the helper’s favor. It therefore becomes easy for those inclined to do so to inflict abuses such as physical violence, wage exploitation, debt or passport bondage, as well as the deprivation of food and rest.

The systematized and internalized bias against domestic work, and especially that against foreign migrants, spurs the stigma against helpers. As Hong Kong Polytechnic University professor Hans Ladegaard argues in “The Discourse of Powerlessness and Repression,” analyzing both the societal and self-written narratives of these migrant women is crucial in determining the conditions to which they’re subject. Regarding this examination, Ladegaard writes that for helpers, “There is no choice, visibility, recognition or privilege; for them, identities are enforced.”

Moreover, the risk of deportation spurred by Hong Kong’s imbalanced immigration policies forms a deep-seated fear of quitting — even as obvious physical or sexual abuses occur. Helpers are forever second-class citizens in Hong Kong and are subject to an entirely separate system of legislation and protective policy. Unlike any other kind of immigrant, foreign domestic helpers can never seek citizenship within the city’s boundaries. They have a two-week window to find employment, or they will be considered illegal inhabitants of Hong Kong. This all further weakens and silences the helper in situations of abuse and imbues the employer with great power over the helper.

Unfortunately, none of this is unique to Hong Kong. The world’s 11.5 million migrant domestic workers are the products of an increasingly globalized era, where power and economic imbalance between countries has provoked a great outflow of domestic workers from certain — mainly South Asian — nations. Narratives collected across the world suggest that unchecked exploitation and forced labor are not uncommon — especially given the often hazy boundaries between worker and family member.

Global domestic worker employment agencies increase the chance of abuse occurring. They take over the government’s job of mandating certain protective policies and instead create the space for a privatized system of exploitation to flourish. As recruitment agencies, they often deceive applicants, demand absurd placement fees, claim the worker’s income and even revoke passports to ensure the helper is indebted to them.

With all this, however, it is important to remember that working conditions and hiring practices vary from not only country to country, but from family to family. Yaya was never abused, she was paid well over minimum wage and given ample free time and annual trips back home. I had a helper, as did every family I knew growing up. But at Yale, I realized that the phrase “Yaya” came to represent a whole style of life that was foreign to many of my peers.

To call an entire line of work exploitative and abusive is to paint the world in black and white, when, in reality, the world exists in a swirl of grey.

Hana Davis hana.davis@yale.edu