There are an estimated 35 million domestic workers in China. Mostly clustered in large urban areas like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Xi’an, they perform valuable services including cleaning, cooking, and caring for children and the elderly.
Yet for all their ubiquity, they are easily overlooked amid the bustle of China’s cities. Most urban residents seemingly either don’t understand or don’t care about their lives, struggles, and futures.
My co-workers and I at the Beijing Hongyan Social Work Service Center want to change that. In addition to trainings, lessons on salary negotiation, and other practical support measures, we organize weekly cultural events and annual arts festivals — including one in 2017 that produced a documentary on the lives of the country’s helpers.
That’s how I came to meet a woman in the northern city of Tianjin who was living out of a McDonald’s bathroom in the train station. She had grown up motherless and illiterate; then her husband left her a few months after their child was born. Eight years later, he returned, only to scam her into signing a divorce agreement and kick her out of the house. She train-hopped her way to Tianjin, where she found odd jobs caring for the elderly. She lived with her clients when she had work, but otherwise spent her nights wandering the city.
It’s an all too common story. Domestic workers in China, as elsewhere, are typically poorly educated, older women from rural areas. Compelled to leave their hometowns to make a living, they often arrive in the city with no plans beyond finding work and with nowhere to stay until they do.
In Tianjin, many congregate at a gathering spot for laborers on Shiyi Jing Road. During the day, they look for work; at night, they drag their suitcases with them until they find a place to sleep. They might end up at a train station, a restaurant, an ATM booth, or next to a police station — with some hoping the proximity to law enforcement will keep potential predators at bay.
Some female domestic workers choose to solve their housing problems by signing up with an agency. Beijing’s Wangjing neighborhood has about 40 domestic staffing agencies of all sizes. These agencies allow their contractors to stay on their premises when they don’t have work, for a fee.
Conditions are not ideal. One of the agencies I visited in 2017 charged 5 yuan (72 cents) for a mat on the floor and 10 yuan for a bunk bed. On the night I was there, none of the bunk beds were occupied: Everybody had opted to sleep on the floor rather than pay the extra 5 yuan.
Nor is getting hired always a guarantee of security. China’s current labor law excludes domestic workers by categorizing their work as “informal employment.” The country’s Labor Contract Law does the same. As a result, domestic workers lack access to the same legal and social benefits given to formal workers.
A domestic worker cleans a client’s bathroom in Chengdu, Sichuan province, March 25, 2020. Wang Lei/CNS/People Visual
Dust, a domestic worker and avid writer who prefers to go by her pen name, once likened domestic workers to invisible family members. They have no blood ties with their clients, yet they toil for them from dusk to dawn. It’s a vulnerable position, and they lack legal recourse in the event of conflict.
Many domestic workers also face internal struggles, including the guilt of being away from home. Separated from their families for long stretches, they feel like they’ve failed as wives and mothers. In a country where domestic work is not regarded as a respectable profession, they struggle to earn their family’s respect and support.
Poor pay doesn’t help. For all their blood, sweat, and tears, domestic workers have no way to achieve upward mobility for their children. Racked with guilt over this, they often send every paycheck home to their families, where it goes to cover costs like their children’s school fees, their parents’ medical expenses, and basic necessities. Many domestic workers I’ve met limit their monthly expenditures as much as possible so there’s more to send home. Some only spend 100 yuan a month — just enough for menstrual pads.
Six years ago, Wang Xiuping had a small business selling Sichuan-style skewers in Beijing and a husband who worked at a construction site in the city. But after her husband had an affair and left the family in 2016, Wang had no choice but to send her children back home to the southwestern city of Chengdu and start working as a domestic helper.
The next fall, Wang unexpectedly got in touch with me to say she had a prolapsed uterus. It was treatable, but the recovery period would be long — a luxury she didn’t have. In order to keep working, she opted simply to have her uterus removed, then left the hospital two days after surgery to save on medical bills.
Domestic workers represent China’s lowest rung of female workers. They’ve played a vital role in the country’s urbanization, while everything from their dignity to their emotional needs and even their sexual desires have been brushed aside by mainstream society.
Yet the woman I mentioned above who was living in a McDonald’s bathroom didn’t see herself as beneath notice. Over the course of our interactions, I learned she used two bars of soap for her morning routine: one for washing her face, the other for washing her hands. Despite being marginalized and forced to live in extremely unpleasant conditions, she had not given up. For all the hardships they endure, these female domestic workers face life with incredible resiliency.
How can we help them? Restoring their voices and listening to their stories would be a start. Our documentary was one such attempt. This year, I organized music and poetry workshops.
Domestic workers workshop lyrics to a song in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, 2019. Courtesy of Beijing Hongyan Social Work Service Center
We encouraged everyone to participate, either by singing or writing songs, but one member had a hard time with the singing portion. Our vocal coach thought it was because she had spoken so little, for such a long time, that she’d lost touch with the higher end of her vocal range.
Silence is the norm for most domestic workers: A workshop participant said her clients have little interest in her views, and she herself worries about saying the wrong thing. Her day-to-day vocabulary is limited to short phrases of acquiescence like “Hmm” and “OK.”
It doesn’t have to be this way. The woman who couldn’t find her voice improved with the help of the vocal coach, who showed her how to mimic piano pitches. We’ve also collected eight poems so far. I particularly liked this one, written by a female worker named He Mingying:
You don’t need to get everything right.
Every day is a race against time,
trying to make a living.
Even if your hope remains unseen,
Keep running ahead.
are like weeds by the side of the road:
I’m a domestic worker.
My own affairs I cannot spare;
My work I cannot shirk.
I’m still striving,
I’ll hold fast until I cannot fall.
As a steadfast woman,
unbowed and upright,
I hope for a life more fulfilling and fine.
He Mingying reads her poem
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.
(Header image: A domestic worker cleans a window during a government-organized skills competition in Hefei, Anhui province, Dec. 16, 2018. Wang Jun/People Visual)