Suitable Accommodation: the Struggle for Space for Migrant Domestic Workers in Hong Kong

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Article published in The Funambulist 13 (September-October 2017) Queers, Feminists and Interiors. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

“Is a maid’s bed different from any other kind of bed?” asks a respondent to a forum thread on asiaxpat.com. This question came as a response to an initial post by someone urgently seeking such a bed in Hong Kong. The string of messages that follow include a heated debate on a “maid’s” right to space, many of whom assert that:

Space is limited in Hong Kong. That is the fact.”

Maids [with beds] should consider themselves lucky.

A maid’s bed needs to be smaller.

Even the smallest IKEA beds (apart from the child ones) would not fit in most maid’s rooms. For example the smallest IKEA mattress is… 7cm too wide for our maid’s room, and that room is large compared to many we have seen.

There are nearly 350,000 Migrant Domestic Workers (MDWs) in Hong Kong, largely women from the Philippines, Indonesia, and other countries in South and Southeast Asia. Though they only comprise 4.7% of the population, they make up 17% of the female workforce. MDWs in Hong Kong emerged in the 1970s, coinciding with the city’s economic boom, an increase of two-income families, women entering the workforce, and the rise of labor export programs in the neighboring Southeast Asian countries. After four decades, with a sharp growth in the 1990s, now one in every eight households — one in three for those with children — employs a domestic worker. These hundreds of thousands of women are the unacknowledged workers who raise the young, care for the elderly, and maintain domestic life. Displaced by global capitalism, they have been separated from their homelands, their families, and their communities. Upon arriving in Hong Kong they are displaced once again through the denial of space to live their lives with dignity.

Chak Funambulist 1
Drawing by Tings Chak for the How to Make Space exhibition (2016).

Hong Kong has one of the world’s most treacherous housing markets — where the average dwelling size for a family is less than 600 square feet and the average 1-bedroom apartment in the city center rents for HK$16,575 (US$2,128). Here, the denial of space is ubiquitously felt by most working and middle class people. In a place of such constructed scarcity, a common sentiment is that any person should feel “lucky” to have access to any space at all.

The minimum household income of a family or individual to hire a MDW is HK$15,000 (US$1,934). This number has not increased with inflation for decades, and since 2013 has been surpassed by the poverty line for a 4-person household. Though the minimum wage for hiring a MDW is far from a “livable” wage — HK$4,310 (US$556) in addition to the provision of free food or an allowance of at least HK$1,037 (US$134) — this payment amounts to a third of the household income for employers whose earnings are just at the threshold. Subsequently, more and more poor and working-class families may be eligible to hire MDWs to care for their children and aging parents yet increasingly feel the burden of spatial and financial constraints. While the cost of living continues to rise in Hong Kong, the social and state responsibility for caring for the society’s young and old is increasingly downloaded to individuals and families.

Evidently, the Hong Kong citizen’s struggle to deal with skyrocketing real estate prices, unaffordable housing, and inadequate access to child and elderly care is inextricably linked to the domestic workers’ search for decent housing, a “live-out” option, dignity and respect. Although capital will continue to pit “native” workers against “foreign” workers, the struggle for the space to live and conduct one’s work in a dignified way is a common one. However, the definition of decent and dignified housing, and to whom that definition applies, remains a site of struggle.

The Schedule of Accommodation and Domestic Duties, which is part of every employment contract for MDWs in Hong Kong, states:

While the average flat size in Hong Kong is relatively small and the availability of a separate servant room is not common, the Employer should provide the Helper suitable accommodation and with reasonable privacy. Examples of unsuitable accommodation are: the helper having to sleep on made-do beds in the corridor with little privacy and sharing a room with an adult/teenager of the opposite sex.

Despite these vague terms, one third of MDWs do not have a room of their own and are made to sleep with family members, sometimes even of the opposite gender. Many sleep in living rooms, corridors, kitchens, washrooms, and storage rooms on makeshift beds above washing machines and cupboards. Furthermore, the mandatory “live-in” policy specified in all employment contracts means that domestic workers must accept these conditions.

So what is “suitable accommodation”?