Can’t get the staff these days

Pick any street in Hong Kong and you will see one or more Filipino maids doing the school run or helping a pensioner walk, depending on the time of day.  In the evening she walks canines instead.  If she was really bad in her previous life her job description would include all three.  They tend to be young, selected from the agency profiles for their physical fitness, stamina and domestic skills.

Definitely value for money.   For a meagre $4000 a month, less than my rent excluding bills, you’ve got yourself a full time cleaner, cook, nanny, carer and dog walker.   Why have Filipino and more recently Indonesian maids become such an integral part of our social fabric?  Never mind the ‘Occupy Central’ movement, if they all decided to quit and go home, the whole economy would collapse.  Childcare provision is abysmal and it would be impossible for both parents to work full time.  Plus no locals would be prepared to work such long hours for a pittance.  I don’t know if they are covered by the minimum wage legislation but I suspect if we calculated the actual hours worked their wage would fall below the guidelines.

As luck would have it, on Sunday I bumped into an Indonesian maid at the local supermarket.  Looking intently at the 5 kgs bags of rice, she was trying to work out the best deal.  I broke the ice by recommending the Thai fragrant rice which was also cheaper by $5 to the one she was going for.   She smiled and thank me.

Now I can reel in the catch.  Journalist hat on and interview begins.  We spoke in Cantonese as she didn’t understand English.  I was impressed with how fluent she was.  Apparently she has worked 15 years for the same employer.

They must treat you well for you to stay that long?  Yes.

They don’t tell you which rice to buy?  No, I have to choose the best deal.  Why don’t you put the rice down, it must be heavy?  No, it’s ok, I’m used to it.  Laugh.

So do you have to look after the kids and old folks and walk the dogs?  No, luckily the kids are grown now and only the youngest who’s 17 is still at home.  But he doesn’t need a lot of looking after.  No, no dogs and no elderly.

Do you have a room of your own?  Yes, they live in a very big flat and my room is large.

You are lucky.  Many have to share with the daughter or make do with the broom cupboard or bathtub or even a mattress on top of the fridge.

Do they treat you well?  Yes I’ve worked for them a long time.  They are good to me and in return I’m happy to go the extra mile.

So what time do you have to get up to clock in?  My day begins at 6am.

It must be hard living there.  When do you get to clock off so you are not on duty anymore?  Well, I’m normally on call till I sleep at 11pm.

Wow those are very long working hours.  So really you work from 6-11 and only get time to sleep with only Sunday off.

Yes.

The penny drops.  So what are you doing here buying rice, it is your precious day off?

Yes I know but they treat me like family so I don’t mind doing extra.  I noticed the rice was running low so I came to get some.  They are at church.  Well that’s very good of you but as soon as you have taken the rice home go straight out.

Don’t you ever get homesick?  No.  Do you ever go home?  No.  We only get a week’s annual holiday.

She smiled and made to leave.  But suddenly turned round and asked if I needed a maid.  I laughed out loud.  People automatically assume that shopping here means I am a resident of this exclusive gated community.  The thought of being treated like royalty all day long was oh so tempting and I don’t need to be filthy rich.

Realistically though, what would I need one for?  My daughter is 6000 miles away and old enough to even mother me through Skype.  It’s true the elderly parents could do with full time care but are in London.  I can still walk and function in normal life, well just.   What would she do exactly?  Except be on a permanent holiday, no expenses spared.

Then there is the feeling of ambivalence with the whole issue.  I was at a friend’s home for dinner.  The maid was waiting on us which brought me back to the Victorian times.  I shared with him that this made me feel  ill at ease.  The idea of one human being virtually being a ‘slave’ to another who’s just more fortunate doesn’t sit well with me.  Yes it is voluntary and they are paid but it seems worse when they have to leave their home.  In some cases taking care of the employers’ children and missing their own.  To me that is the true tragedy.

Shortie’s argument was they’d be worse off if we didn’t provide the job opportunities.  Undoubtedly they earn so much more here that they can send money home to support their family and save to build a house.  The usually extortionate accomodation is a great perk together with three meals a day.    Pure profit in exchange for their time and skills.  It must be an offer they can’t refuse because there are thousands of them scattered all over.  You only need to go and see them congregate in Central on the day that even God rested.  Whilst a lot of the Indonesians have staked a claim in Yuen Long.

I’m still not convinced; the jury is out on this one.  Wouldn’t it be so much better if they could support their family amongst their own people?  No doubt I’m a diehard idealist, like Lennon,  look what happened to him!

I worry also the impact on family life and child development.  The excessively long working hours, eleven a day six days a week mean the children see the maid more than their own parents.  In effect she is bringing them up.  With this limited contact, how on earth can they notice the kid is unhappy or anxious,because for example they are being bullied at school. Consequently, lack of communication will be an increasing problem between the generations.

What kind of society puts economic progress before the well being of the next generation?The phenomenon of the only child or no child is widespread as the cost of living is too high.  This trend has an unexpected negative effect.   With the maid at the heir apparent’s  beck and call every waking moment, we are in danger of creating a whole generation of spoilt monsters throwing  tantrums at the drop of a hat.   Grandparents don’t help either.   With just the one they focus their attention and money on spoiling him.  These days kids demand and not request.  Some don’t even know the words, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and are too cocky for my liking.

Yet they are not creative or free thinkers.  They learn by rote.   Education is just a means to an end, opening the door to higher education and a white collar job.  Success is measured in terms of getting top marks.   Suggesting that learning could be fun in itself would ensure a spell in the nearest mental hospital.   And the only way you can convince them you are cured is to renounce this heresy.  A classic illustration is  my optician offering a 10,000 dollars reward for a 10 point mark up in his 10 year old’s English results!

They have a misconception here.  I was advised to charge  $80 for primary kids as opposed to half as much again for those of secondary age.  The reasoning is the higher the level the more qualified the tutor, thus deserving of higher rates.  Moreover performance in HKCEE exams, the equivalent of GCSEs, will directly impact on career choices.

In their tunnel vision they don’t realise the importance of catching them young; to promote a love of learning and to lay down a firm foundation.  Children absorb best when they are having fun and don’t even realise they are being taught.   Tragically, nobody will pay good money for me to ‘play’ with their kid however young or take her out and have fun!

Well I could do with losing some weight, so better tighten that belt.

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Posted on July 24, 2013, in Domestic help and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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