Do­mes­tic per­ils

Mil­lions of women in China un­der­take house­hold tasks for em­ploy­ers, but the hours are long and the use of in­for­mal con­tracts mean they are not pro­tected by la­bor laws. Hou Liqiang re­ports.

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - Con­tact the writer at houliqiang@chi­

Mil­lions of women in China un­der­take house­hold tasks for em­ploy­ers, but the hours are long and there’s no pro­tec­tion from la­bor laws.

The con­tracts the two sides sign are not for­mal la­bor con­tracts ... This leaves do­mes­tic work­ers un­pro­tected by the la­bor laws.”

Tang Binyao, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of so­cial work at the Univer­sity of Ji­nan in Shan­dong prov­ince

Ina win­dow­less base­ment of a 30-story build­ing, about a dozen fe­male do­mes­tic work­ers were at­tend­ing a meet­ing where they shared their em­ploy­ment ex­pe­ri­ences. One of the at­ten­dees, a woman con­duct­ing mar­ket re­search for a lo­cal com­pany, sparked a de­bate by ask­ing the women if they had ever been sub­jected to ver­bal vi­o­lence at work. The flood­gates opened as the women re­lated their ex­pe­ri­ences, while the re­searcher’s at­tempts to change the sub­ject were re­buffed.

Ly­ing on the floor in a cor­ner of the un­dec­o­rated room was a called Let Des­tiny Go Away. There was no air con­di­tioner in the 30-square me­ter room, and just one fan was work­ing. De­spite the sti­fling con­di­tions, the com­plaints con­tin­ued for more than an hour, in­ter­rupted only by the oc­ca­sional sigh.

The sce­nario partly mir­rored the sit­u­a­tion of many do­mes­tic work­ers, who are de­pressed by their work­ing con­di­tions, even though they are rel­a­tively well paid.

In 2008, He Mingy­ing, from the In­ner Mon­go­lia au­ton­o­mous re­gion, be­came a do­mes­tic worker, lured by the de­cent salary and low en­try qual­i­fi­ca­tions. How­ever, the 58-year-old for­mer house­wife said the fam­ily she worked for “de­lib­er­ately made life dif­fi­cult” and she re­gret­ted her de­ci­sion.

“I made about 800 yuan ($120) a month, but some­times I only had two days off. The fam­ily said they paid me 100 yuan more than an­other do­mes­tic worker they knew, so they ex­pected me to do more work,” she re­called. “In­stead of us­ing a mop to clean the floor, they asked me to clean it by hand with a cloth.”

To make mat­ters worse, the fam­ily’s el­derly mother had an un­usual body clock, which meant she slept dur­ing the day in­stead of at night, and He had to cook and un­der­take other chores for her, de­spite hav­ing al­ready com­pleted a full day’s work.

Even though China’s la­bor laws limit the work­ing day to eight hours and the work­ing week to 44 hours, He found no re­lief, so she quit her job after just three months.

How­ever, in­comes have been ris­ing for sev­eral years, andin Bei­jing live-in work­ers earn an av­er­age monthly wage of about 4,500 yuan. In 2014, do­mes­tic work­ers’ wages rose 20 per­cent from the pre­vi­ous year. In the same year, the av­er­age monthly wage for yue­sao— live-in post­par­tum care work­ers— in Shang­hai rose to 10,532 yuan in De­cem­ber from 8,322 yuan in Jan­uary, ac­cord­ing to a re­port pub­lished in June last year by the De­part­ment of Trade in Ser­vices and Com­mer­cial Ser­vices and the Chi­nese Academy of In­ter­na­tional Trade and Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion for the Min­istry of Com­merce.

Ca­sual em­ploy­ment

“In­stead of be­ing in an em­ploy­erem­ployee re­la­tion­ship, most do­mes­tic work­ers are in an agent-ser­vice provider re­la­tion­ship with do­mes­tic ser­vice com­pa­nies. The con­tracts the two sides sign are not for­mal la­bor con­tracts and the clients are not le­gal en­ti­ties so the two sides can’t sign la­bor con­tracts. This leaves do­mes­tic work­ers un­pro­tected by the la­bor laws,” said Tang Binyao, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of so­cial work at the Univer­sity of Ji­nan in Shan­dong prov­ince.

Ear­lier this year, He sus­tained an­kle in­juries when she was hit by a taxi as she rode her elec­tric bike to the home of her preg­nant em­ployer after help­ing her dur­ing a med­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion at the hos­pi­tal. Her treat­ment cost 3,000 yuan, and He was forced to rest at home, which meant she couldn’t earn. In­stead, she re­ceived just 500 yuan as com­pen­sa­tion from her em­ployer.

The lack of le­gal pro­tec­tion means do­mes­tic work­ers are of­ten trou­bled by wage dis­putes. Li Changze, a spokesman for Ay­i­laile, an agency that sup­plies do­mes­tic ser­vices, said wage dis­putes oc­cur with about 2 per­cent of their clients. Al­though the work­ers usu­ally turn to ar­bi­tra­tion to re­solve the prob­lem, some­times the amount is too small and it isn’t worth it.

Inone re­cent case, a client re­fused to pay 2,000 yuan to a do­mes­tic worker the com­pany had dis­patched, and re­peat­edly ig­nored their phone calls, de­spite the agency’s size and renown — more than 70,000 do­mes­tic work­ers who serve more than 100,000 clients na­tion­wide have reg­is­tered with Ay­i­laile.

Tang said a small num­ber of do­mes­tic ser­vices agen­cies are at­tempt­ing to forge em­ployer-em­ployee re­la­tion­ships with their do­mes­tic work­ers. How­ever, the cost can be high be­cause the providers have to make so­cial in­sur­ance pay­ments for the work­ers, and many agen­cies are hes­i­tant to adopt the model be­cause of con­cerns about be­com­ing em­broiled in dis­putes about work-re­lated in­juries and dam­age to prop­erty.

In 2014, an es­ti­mated 20.34 mil­lion peo­ple were work­ing in China’s do­mes­tic ser­vices in­dus­try, a rise of 13 per­cent from the pre­vi­ous year, ac­cord­ing to the min­istry.

Chen Jiyan, a pro­gram of­fi­cer for do­mes­tic work­ers at the Bei­jing Hongyan So­cial Work Ser­vice Cen­ter, said work­ers find it al­most im­pos­si­ble to work for just eight hours a day, es­pe­cially if they live at their clients’ homes.

Some­times the clients’ habits can af­fect the work­ers in other ways, ac­cord­ing to Chen: “Some se­niors lead such fru­gal lives that they ask their do­mes­tic work­ers to cook very lit­tle, which re­sults in the work­ers — usu­ally women from the ru­ral ar­eas whoare ac­cus­tomed to large meals— go­ing with­out suf­fi­cient food.”

One woman who at­tended the experience-shar­ing meet­ing said a client asked her to wash all the cloth­ing and bed linen by hand, even though the fam­ily owned a wash­ing ma­chine.

Ac­cord­ing to Chen, few do­mes­tic work­ers who live with their clients are given their own room. “Most have to sleep on tem­po­rary beds set up on bal­conies or in the liv­ing room.”

“Some clients even ban their do­mes­tic work­ers from talk­ing with the neigh­bors be­cause they are afraid their pri­vacy may be com­pro­mised,” she said, adding that there is a wide­spread be­lief that the job is de­mean­ing, which means many do­mes­tic work­ers keep their work a se­cret, even from their fam­i­lies.

Ex­cep­tional care

Al­though many em­ploy­ers treat their do­mes­tic help poorly, there are al­ways ex­cep­tions. Jia Huifeng, from Shanxi prov­ince, was moved by her client’s car­ing be­hav­ior.

Last year, when the 55-year-old needed emer­gency surgery after a heart at­tack, her em­ployer of seven years not only changed her schedule to help Jia, but also hired a woman to as­sist her while she re­cov­ered. “My boss even can­celed a busi­ness trip to Viet­nam and came to the hos­pi­tal to see me,” she re­called.

Jia is like most of the women at the experience-shar­ing meet­ing, who were in their 40s and 50s. The or­ga­nizer, Chen Jiyan, has­met more than 1,000 do­mes­tic work­ers. “Only one of them was in her 20s, but there were sev­eral in their 30s,” she said.

He Miny­ing’s daugh­ter works 11 hours a day at a foot mas­sage par­lor, but makes far less than she would as a do­mes­tic worker. How­ever, she won’t be fol­low­ing in her mother’s foot­steps.

“She said she will never be a do­mes­tic worker be­cause it’s a job that many peo­ple look down on,” her mother said.


Do­mes­tic work­ers use ed­i­ble oil to make soap dur­ing an ac­tiv­ity to im­prove their house­hold skills at a com­mu­nity in the Wangjing area of Bei­jing, on Sept 3.


Zhang Aiai, a do­mes­tic worker from Gansu prov­ince, takes care of a 95-year-old woman at her home in down­town Bei­jing on Mon­day.

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