Graphic: spf.pdf for Lausan.

Care workers in the epidemic—Foreword

Just as the public health crisis intensifies, the invisible labour of care risks further erasure.

Original: 【照顧者的抗疫日常】前言 / Days and Nights of Family Carers in the Epidemic—Foreword, published in 香港獨立媒體 (InMediaHK)

Translators: Grassmedia Action, P, yehua

If you would like to be involved in our translation work, please get in touch here.

Series table of contents:
PART ONE: Care work, employment and race
PART TWO: Twenty years as a migrant worker mother
PART THREE: Caring for children with special needs

Editors’ note: Care work in the household plays a crucial role in keeping society together. In a time of crisis, this labour is especially overlooked. For this year’s International Working Women’s Day, the migrants solidarity committee of autonomous 8a spoke to carers about their experiences and working conditions throughout the ongoing pandemic.

The authors from migrants solidarity committee autonomous 8a connect and walk with the grassroots. They endeavour to fight for the genuine autonomy of peoples with mutual respect from the root, where participating in democracy in their own capacities becomes possible. They devote themselves to the mass of migrant workers and their movement through connecting with and getting to know the grassroots. They continue to take part in migrant workers’ movements from different perspectives, distributing information and sharing understanding among the public.

Let’s talk about family carers on the occasion of the upcoming International Women’s Day in the midst of the epidemic.

Few masks are left. While their neighbours are queuing overnight to buy surgical masks, some carers are unable to leave the house and their family members alone—particularly those who require continuous care—and are left with dwindling supplies. All of a sudden, life outside is confined into the space of the home: Class is suspended but learning must continue. Children are “trapped” inside with no chance to go out and release their energy. Housewives must juggle between grocery shopping and looking after their kids. Working mothers may have to take leave. Adults working from home have no idea how to continue their work while sharing space with the children. Some grassroots workers who cannot take leave are bringing their kids to work.

When tensions between family members intensify, you may still be able to breathe if you are lucky enough to have a big enough house that affords you your own space. Otherwise, you most likely have to endure this friction in a subdivided flat, trying to resolve any ensuing conflict within a hundred square feet. Housework also becomes heavier: Bleach and disinfectant wear down the hands with their corrosives and irritants. Doing laundry more or less takes up half a day. Just as the epidemic has broken out on the outside, the stress in the home has intensified explosively.

An African proverb suggests: “It takes a village to raise a child.” This is also true in the here and now. It takes an entire society to perform care work, be it care for children, the elderly, patients or people of different abilities. However, few are willing to acknowledge or shoulder this collective responsibility, least of all the government. Public care services like childcare, elderly care and home services have thus become scarce, meaning individual families have no choice but to take up the burden themselves. It is clear that care work has long been on the bottom rung of social priority.

In such families, it is almost always women who bear all responsibilities of care. They are archetypically mothers and housewives. But why do most people assume they belong at home? Don’t they have any pursuits of their own, apart from pinching pennies, cleaning and cooking? Why is their domestic work not considered “work”? Why is unpaid domestic labour justified? This is the gendered division of labour that has been denounced by women for hundreds of years—often at the cost of their lives.

Some may say: “That’s not true; Hong Kong is a society where men and women are equal. Just look at how many iron ladies there are in the professional world nowadays!” But this simply overlooks another group of women: “jeje” (a Cantonese term referring to migrant domestic workers, often used by Hong Kong families). Some families have the financial ability to “outsource” domestic and care work to migrant domestic workers (MDWs), who have left their home and travelled a long way to work in Hong Kong.

Who exactly are these workers, and why would they bother to come and look after someone else’s kid? Don’t they have jobs in their own countries? These questions in fact describe the intricate networks of the transfer of benefits between labour export and import states. Meanwhile, institutional and societal forms of discrimination against migrant workers of different races have run rampant in Hong Kong: Expected to be obedient and docile, MDWs are regularly referred to by such epithets as “Pinoy (Filipino) maid” (賓妹) or “Indo (Indonesian) servant” (印傭). This constant racialization of feminized labour further exacerbates the working and living conditions that leave MDWs no option but to work for a meagre salary under the compulsory live-in rule. All of this exploitation is built upon the general depreciation of domestic work, shattering any illusion of gender equality.

This is the backdrop, but the life story of each carer is not the same, and not everyone can fit into the same narrative. For instance, what other relationships may develop between a “jeje” (MDW) and a “Ma’am” (female employer) apart from one of employment? What about male carers and the issues they have been facing? Even if the public provision of care services improves, how much autonomy do carers and carees really enjoy? Carers’ lives in the time of the coronavirus pandemic certainly reflect the complexity of the problems we have discussed so far, but what possibilities or problems come to the fore as they process, react to and resist these structures of domination?

We had planned to conduct a series of interviews before the International Women’s Day, but when we tried to contact potential interviewees, we encountered the very problems that typically afflict carers: time constraints. They are busy “battling” various issues on the home front and barely have the leisure to walk us through every detail of their daily lives. We have also heard some saddening responses: An MDW was unable to meet us since she is not allowed to have a day off (to which she is legally entitled), and it is difficult for her to express herself freely on the phone in her employer’s house. A carer of a victim of a work accident had concerns on whether we are from the insurance company, trying to gather intel to minimize compensation for the worker. A differently-abled friend has bad network connectivity in their residential care home and had to drop off frequently during the interview.

So, we will take it slow. We hope that this care for carers themselves would outlive International Women’s Day. We will share our observations and thoughts with you soon.

Read: Care workers in the epidemic—Part 1: Care, employment, and race