About ten years ago, a close friend came to visit me in Hong Kong. This friend—now director of a center for ethics at a prestigious American university—seemed surprised when informed that my family had hired a live-in domestic helper to help care for our child and deal with domestic chores. He had just arrived from another trip, and since he was going to stay with us for a few days I told him to put his dirty clothes in the laundry basket and our helper would take care of it. My friend objected, saying he would do it himself. I didn’t argue at the time, but after a few drinks I mentioned it again and he relented.
Why would he object, I wondered? In Hong Kong, it’s common for professional families to hire foreign domestic workers (the politically correct term). The workers come to make money for themselves and their families, they are given contracts on much better terms than in places like Singapore, their interests are represented by nongovernmental agencies and by their home governments (especially the Philippines), and they are free to go home when they wish. In Hong Kong, nobody thinks twice about the justice of hiring foreign domestic workers (the debate focuses on the terms of their work). But somehow it offends the sensibilities of Western liberals. Perhaps the idea of workers in the home violates the image of the family as a sphere of love and affection. Or maybe it conjures up images of master-servant relationships from aristocratic times. There may be an element of hypocrisy—in Western countries, domestic work is often done informally or illegally by migrant workers, without contracts and without political recognition and legal protection—but few card-carrying liberals would want to admit that they hire illegal domestic workers, much less defend the practice in public.
Such attitudes, if taken seriously, can be damaging to domestic workers. Of course the status quo can and should be improved, but we need to think of improvements that benefit the workers themselves—and yes, that also benefit those hiring the workers. It’s not just a matter of figuring out the right laws and policies. So much interaction between employers and domestic workers occurs in the privacy of the home, away from the prying eyes of the state, and the informal norms of engagement have great impact on the welfare of the workers. But one searches in vain within the academic literature on migration and domestic work for morally informed proposals regarding the treatment of domestic workers, as though it’s immoral even to allude to that possibility. So let me begin with that topic. I believe that the Confucian tradition offers moral resources for thinking about employer-domestic worker relationships, and I will try to spell those out. My views are also informed by interviews with domestic workers in Hong Kong and Beijing and by volunteer work I did with a Hong Kong-based NGO that represents the interests of foreign domestic workers.
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