Daniel A. Bell Replies

Daniel A. Bell Replies

I am grateful for Sin-Yee Chan’s powerful comment on my paper. I agree with much of what she says but I will focus here on points of clarification and disagreement. I do not mean to argue that domestic workers should “discount their rights and leave their well-being to the goodwill of their employers.” I agree that the basic interests of domestic workers need to be protected by law and I specifically argue for laws that mete out “severe punishment for employers who physically or sexually abuse domestic workers.” I also agree that the status quo does not adequately protect the basic interests of domestic workers. In the case of domestic workers in mainland China, I argue for “Hong Kong-style contracts that set minimum wages and guarantee health and work accident insurance.” In the case of domestic workers in Hong Kong, I argue that foreign domestic workers should be given more than two weeks to find new employers so that they won’t be forced to tolerate bad employers. I also agree that the current system, even if it is improved, should be viewed as less than ideal. In an ideal world, no one would be working in other people’s homes simply in order to earn money for themselves and their families. And no one would be forced to travel abroad (or within China) and deprived of key family relations because economic opportunities are too few at home.

The question, however, is what do we do now and for the foreseeable future? Chan’s suggestion is to advocate the abolition of the practice of hiring domestic workers. Rather than forcing migrant workers back home and condemning them to lives of economic misery, Chan suggests that migrant workers can be trained as employees in nursing homes and nurseries. But political recommendations need to be sensitive to social context, and this solution owes more to the experience of Western liberal societies. In East Asian societies, it is widely believed that care for needy family members—children, the elderly, and the chronically ill—is best carried out within the home rather than by anonymous caretakers in publicly funded institutions. Surely it is no coincidence that day care and nursing homes are relatively undeveloped in East Asian societies with a Confucian heritage or that there is little demand for such services even in politically free and economically wealthy societies. To my mind, any feasible recommendations for reform in Hong Kong and mainland China need to take for granted the assumption that care of needy family members will usually be done within the home.

So how can we improve the lives of domestic workers in this context? I agree with Chan that we should consider the worst cases and firmly put in place laws that prevent abuses from taking place. But I think we also need to look at the best cases—as seen not just from the perspective of employers but also from the perspective of domestic workers—and seek inspiration for reform from such cases. My interviews w...

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