On Jan. 23, two days before the Lunar New Year, China locked down almost the entire province of Hubei. The goal was to keep that centrally located region’s novel coronavirus outbreak from riding the wave of the country’s annual pre-holiday travel rush, but by that point, millions of residents had already left.
Soon, lockdowns of varying degrees were being imposed nationwide, as provincial authorities, especially those in areas with highly mobile populations, restricted traffic, prohibited large gatherings, shuttered workplaces, and imposed partial or complete quarantines on suspected or potential carriers. Although they were largely successful in finally limiting the disease’s spread, these “hardcore” preventative measures have put serious strain on certain industries — especially those reliant on migrants, like domestic work.
Experts estimate there are approximately 35 million domestic workers in China. Together they provide cleaning, cooking, and childrearing services to tens of millions of households throughout the country, as well as look after pregnant women, the elderly, and individuals who are frail or who have a disability. Due to the tenuous nature of their work, however, they are among the most vulnerable to the economic and psychological aftershocks of the pandemic. Outbreak-linked restrictions on road traffic and interpersonal communication have and will continue to prevent domestic workers from finding and holding down jobs, while the ensuing economic uncertainty may impact urban households’ ability to hire domestic help or offer them reasonable wages.
According to a 2017 study, only about 10% of China’s domestic workers are formal employees with legitimate labor contracts. The vast majority are contractors, hired through outlets like middlemen companies. They are not covered by the country’s labor laws, and so the pandemic has exposed the precarity of their employment. Although it varies by region, based on interviews with companies, middlemen, and support organizations around the country, it seems that new contracts have declined by 85% compared with the same period last year. One manager of a middleman organization based in southern megacity Guangzhou said salaries had also fallen.
Complicating matters, almost all domestic workers in China are women, the majority of whom are older and from rural areas with low education levels. Outside of their hometowns, this group lacks the social resources and support networks that would help them protect their rights and interests.
In order to better understand the impact of the pandemic on domestic workers, in early February the Beijing Hongyan Social Work Service Center carried out a limited online survey of Beijing-based domestic workers. We received 90 responses, all of them from women. The results confirmed our concerns: The pandemic has left domestic workers under tremendous professional, financial, and psychological strain.
Beijing’s domestic workers hail from all over the country, forming part of what experts refer to as the country’s “floating population” of migrant workers. According to our survey, roughly two-thirds of respondents returned home for the holiday. The government’s strict preventative measures — such as quarantines, roadblocks, and the complete closure of many villages — forced almost three-quarters of this group to postpone their return to Beijing.
For the third who never left — or who eventually made it back to the city — mandatory or voluntary quarantine periods and a lack of basic protective supplies such as masks have made it hard to get around and do their jobs. Roadblocks and reduced public transit are making daily commutes longer and more expensive, and if their employer’s residential community is quarantined, domestic workers can face problems reaching their place of employment.
As a result, many domestic workers have experienced severe difficulties looking for and keeping jobs. More than half of the domestic workers active on the job market reported that finding work has become extremely difficult. Those who had lined up work for after the holiday, only to find themselves trapped in their hometowns indefinitely, are now worried about losing their positions.
Adding insult to injury, various communities in Beijing have tightened restrictions on migrant populations, including blocking them from returning to their rental apartments. This has left members of the city’s floating population no choice but to find — and pay for — temporary accommodations wherever they can. These additional expenses, coupled with rising commuting costs, have further increased the financial strain on domestic workers.
Psychologically, the pandemic is pushing many domestic workers to the brink. Among respondents, nearly 90% expressed concerns about the impact of the pandemic, and close to 60% of those described themselves “extremely worried.” Virtually all respondents said they wanted additional help. Their most commonly cited need was for more protective materials like masks, which they require to do their jobs. Roughly 34% requested help identifying job opportunities, and 32% said they needed financial assistance. A quarter of the domestic workers surveyed said they could use help finding or paying for housing.
The anxiety of domestic workers who stayed in Beijing over the holiday has also been exacerbated by employers’ increasingly stringent demands regarding hygiene, which require them to spend more time cleaning each day. Of this group, approximately 40% said their employers had started demanding more from them. A number complained they were working longer hours, or that their bosses wouldn’t let them leave the house, even just to go outside, out of fear of contagion.
The needs of domestic workers will likely continue to evolve as the pandemic runs its course. China is gradually relaxing its prevention policies, allowing migrant domestic workers to return to cities and resume work, but many will have no income during their imposed quarantine periods. Officials and nongovernmental organizations must lend a hand in reducing the strain on domestic workers by helping them identify job opportunities and manage agency fees and other costs.
Over the past two months, the Hongyan center has set up a hotline for domestic workers, helped them find new work opportunities — at one point even assisting a woman in resolving a wage dispute. We also provide an online platform for domestic workers to share their problems, both as a way for them to let off steam and find solutions to their problems, and as a means of documenting this chapter of history.
However, as a charitable organization, we’re all too aware of our funding and resource limitations. In light of this, last month we issued an open letter calling on domestic companies and employers to provide shelters and wages throughout the quarantine period. We hope businesses and other social actors will do their part to improve the living conditions of domestic workers — one of China’s most valuable and vulnerable groups.
This report was originally drafted by Li Wenfen, Mei Ruo, and Wang Jianrong from the Beijing Hongyan Social Work Service Center. After being edited for length and clarity, it is being republished here with permission.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Returning migrant domestic workers look for jobs at a domestic service company in Shanghai, March 5, 2020. Zhong Yang/IC)