Sunday, December 11, 2011

The help.

I was a different person when I moved to Hong Kong. I'm pretty sure I was still called Nat, but other than that, I was pretty much chalk. I'm now cheese. 

(Has anyone ever tried to combine chalk with cheese? Are they really that different? I guess they are. Plus, not much goes with chalk.)

I digress. I saw many unfamiliar and 'weird' things when I got here in 2009; people hanging meat outside all day long and then eating it, bird's nest, shark fin, dogs in prams, you-name-it.

But one thing that was really strange for me were the domestic helpers. Often called 'amahs', which is similar to 'aunt' in Chinese (and NEVER called 'maids'), these are the ladies who move from places like the Philippines and Indonesia to wait on expat and Chinese families. At first I thought this was reserved for the wealthy folk, much like having a full-time nanny in Australia. But, no... every single person I know in Hong Kong has a helper that comes at least once a week. I've only met two people who decided not to have a full-time helper after they had children. 

It's what you do: you move here; you get a helper to do things like cleaning, ironing and washing. You move here and have a baby; you get a full-time, live-in helper who does all of the above, as well as cooking, shopping, nannying - whatever you need her to do. It's more than common. It's just the done thing.

And the reason why most of the population can afford this miracle? Because it's cheap. Because minimum wage for domestic helpers in Hong Kong is low, and because most of us who live and work here can afford it. 

And now that B and are 'with child', we're faced with the decision about whether or not to have one of these full-time helpers. A lady who is with us every day, taking away 'the daily grind' off our hands, looking after our child when we need her to, cooking our meals when we need her to, and basically just freeing up my time to parent without the extra pains. The bigger part of me says 'yes'. Why make life harder than it needs to be? Why try and be superwoman, when I don't have to be? And, if everyone else does it, why shouldn't we?

The smaller part of me worries about two things: (1) being physically unable to move back to Australia after becoming reliant on a life without endless buckets of washing and sheet-changing; and (2) that terrible word: 'exploitation'. And that's the tricky one. While it's no-doubt not good that people are paid far less than us per hour to keep our homes clean and our table's full of food, most of these ladies earn far less in their home countries and want the work; particularly when their employer is someone who is kind to them and pays them above minimum wage. Which is what we would do: pay above and beyond the standard, do as much as we can around the house ourselves, and - maybe most importantly - be kind. I have friends here who love their helpers like they're part of their own family. They're not 'maids', they're housekeepers and they're just doing a job.

The woman we interviewed is currently working with a local family who makes her sleep on a wafer-thin mattress on the kitchen floor because they don't have room for her. They ask her to work from 7am to 9pm six days per week, and she's paid the very minimum wage and benefits.

We'll have her work less hours, pay her more overall, and do what extras we can. We'll never boss her around or make her do anything, and she'll live in comfort. We'll get along with her, and we'll be an employer she can count on to treat her as an equal.

Is that really so bad? 

Please be honest with me, because I'm cheese. Maybe I need to remember what it's like to be chalk.


  1. Oooh that is such a hard decision to make! Part of me says- no way! You have kids to raise them yourself, and I too would worry about exploitation and getting used to it. It would be hard to get un-used to it. I would also stress about my child getting more attached to someone other than to me!

    But at the same time, if you are good to this person and give them a better life than they would have with another family? Also, if you don't have family around or any kind of support- it could be really hard, and you will really need support of some kind.... and being a Mummy is really hard work, it would be nice to have some help. I think I would struggle with this decision too! I hope you can find peace with whatever you choose to do.

  2. If I was in your position, taking on a helper would keep me in HK an extra 10 years.

    I couldn't hire a person in such a situation, pay her above-average wages because she has a needy family, then after she and her family get used to this improved lifestyle, suddenly cut it off coz I'm back to Bondi! The dislocation of losing this income stream is (to my mind) worse than not hiring her in the first place. I would feel I need to give her a good go at this income, with plenty of warning that I'm going, and even look for another family for her to go to.

    Also, what is this 'with child' business? You have a flamenco dancer up for wordless wednesday as the latest post for six weeks ;-) then you blurt out this 'situation'? Hope it's all in an earlier post that i haven't read yet...

  3. I would be hesitant to take on any help because I just don't agree with the whole concept. I also think it would be far too easy to get really lazy. But I'm a big advocate for parents raising their own children. I hate the childcare culture here in Australia. Please don't do this just necause it's easy. Because the fact is being a parent is not easy. If you wouldn't do this here why do it there?

  4. I say go for it. I had a friend who had a nanny growing up and not once has she EVER said that she looked at the nanny as her own mother. Her parents were her parents and while she loved her nanny like part of the family, she never confused the two. Her parents did all the same things with her that my nanny-less parents did with me except both her parents also juggled full-time 10+ hour work days. When they came home they only wanted to focus on the children and not have to worry about laundry and mopping, etc.

    Not to mention how healthy it is for a child to have one stable figure in their life who looks after them rather than multiple daycares, babysitters, etc.

    I think you and B need to think about where you both want to be AFTER you have the baby. Are you going to go back to work like you did before baby? If so, an Amah might be a wise decision.

    And so what if you have to readjust when you move back to Australia?? One bridge at a time, Nat. One bridge at a time.

  5. I definitely agree that it's a tough decision. I believe those who take advantage of their 'amah' are exploiting them. However, those are who are treated justly by their employers are just doing a job. So, given that you would be a fair and kind employer, I think you should go for it, especially since the woman you interviewed is currently being mistreated.

  6. Went through exactly the same thought process when we found out we were having a baby. And we just hired someone full-time today (live out though)! It's really hard for people who don't live here to understand the culture of hiring a helper. I never would have thought I could do it, but have realised it's not always easy living here, we live in a city millions of kms away from home, with no family or other sort of support, where it's hard to do the grocery shopping without visiting 5 different places for what you need, where there are hills EVERYWHERE. I say go for it. x

  7. I think being a parent is hard enough without the 'home' pressures like keeping the washing in tack, tidying, dusting, etc. & I don't see you as someone that WOULD abuse the right.

    I say go for it.

  8. I personally wouldn't hire anyone to help me with my child unless I was not going to be home ie. work or running errands. The American culture is a little easier as most people have cars or public transportation thats very easy to use. I can't imagine living somewhere where I have to visit 5 store just to get groceries. So with that said...maybe a part time helper to help when you need them? I honestly wouldn't want anyone to spend as much or more time with my child than I do. :) And hello!!!

  9. My friend in Brunei has an amah. I think as an expat they are expected to employ an amah.

    She teaches her Amahs to cook western dishes as that way the lady is unskilled and can earn more as she is able to cater for the western palate.

    Perhaps, along with what you have already said you will do you could also add a few more strings to her bow.

  10. Hi Natalie,I'm an Australian that moved to India 12 months ago, our family has a house maid, she is only 16 and has been cleaning for us for the last 12 months. I have just written a post about her as she is one of many that come from a very poor background. I used to think that it was wrong to hire young people as it is exploiting them, however since I have lived here I realise that if we did not employ her she may be living on the streets and be begging for food.

    We treat her really well and she is just like one of the family.Isn't it better that you employ a person to clean for you and in return you give them a job and keep them off the streets. Unless you have lived in a poor country and have seen young kids begging for money, it's hard to comprehend that you are actually helping them and giving the opportunity of a life time!

    I'm very passionate about this topic, I say go for it, give someone a job!

    Nicky Singh

  11. Well I see how you struggle with the decision but I am pro hiring simply because I believe you are giving the person a better life along with helping yourself enjoy your pregnancy and child's growth without the extra pressure of housework. Women who are home-makers and people who live in the westernised world can manage because of the lesser pressures on their time. But only someone who lives without the convenience of automatic washers/dryers, dishwashers, running hot water, dust free environs understands how difficult it is to not have help. My sister struggles everyday to manage even with help in India and I find it far easier to do without in UK.

    For the naysayers I'd say try dusting, sweeping and mopping the house twice a day everyday in addition to all your work....try shopping in 3-4 different places for groceries...try being at work for 10 hours and come back home to cook from scratch without mixes, canned and frozen stuff, no pre-cut, pre-washed veggies, try bringing up your child without day cares and familial support and then you will know why..

    As for the person who says that its cruel to give someone a better life for a short time only to take it away please remember their other alternative is having a backbreaking hard shitty life ALL the time with no months/years of respite.. I totally agree with giving them respect and a decent wage and living conditions...teach them extra skills and you would have changed their lives not just that time...

    Go for it girl!!

  12. We struggled with this a few months back... our p/t housekeeper needed a place to live and we didn't want to lose here, but didn't think we were the 'kind of folks' that required someone to 'live in' with our family. We eventually came to the conclusion that we would be okay if she moved in, that we wouldn't ever take advantage of her help, and that we would treat her right... more than right.
    So far so good - we really love Mercy and she adores our little girl. She seems really happy here and we are happy she is with us. Hope it all works out for you!

  13. I lived in HK 3 years ago, and we had a live-in nanny. She was great with the kids and did as much or little as I asked. We moved back to Australia with a 4 yo, 2 yo and me pregnant. Yes it was tough, really tough. 3 years on I still miss 'the help'. I hate washing, ironing, cleaning etc... but I am so glad we had help when we had the chance. Hubby and I had more time for the kids, more time for each other and everyone was happy. I still keep in touch with her, and I gave her a fantastic reference when we left so she is still working there. Good luck.


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