How Agents Keep China’s Housekeepers Grateful — and Dependent
Last year, I had the opportunity to sit in on a mass psychological counseling event organized by a Beijing domestic service company for its contract workers. When everyone was gathered, the host asked the assembled why they had come.
“We want to make money!” they shouted in unison.
“Why don’t you already have money?” the host asked, winding them up.
“Because we don’t have skills!” said one. “We’re not cultured!” replied another as the host went around the room.
“We don’t have a platform!”
“We haven’t worked to improve ourselves!”
“We lack confidence!”
The host wasn’t impressed. “Why don’t you go look for a platform?” she wanted to know. “Whose problem is it if you don’t have opportunities? Whose problem is it if you lack courage? Whose problem is it if you don’t have vision? Whose problem is it if you lack confidence? Whose problem is it if you’re not healthy?”
“All these problems are internal,” she finally concluded. “They’re all of our own making. Am I right? Think about it: Aren’t you the one at fault?”
Admittedly, much of this call-and-response was performative in nature, but in the course of my fieldwork on domestic service companies and workers in Beijing, I found this messaging to be a routine part of both company-provided psychological counseling and job training. There’s a hidden logic at work here: The companies are helping “unskilled” middle-aged rural women realize their own value, and these women should repay them through high-quality service. And in doing so, the firms constantly reinforce the lower status and class of domestic workers.
The subset of Beijing domestic workers I researched — referred to in Chinese as ayi, or “auntie” — generally worked full time for a household, looking after kids, caring for elderly family members, cooking, and cleaning. To find employers, most rely on mediator agencies. These agencies have no formal labor relationship with the ayi, and don’t provide them unemployment insurance or social security, but to keep their clients happy, they’re careful to train ayi to know their place in their employers’ households. Important to these so-called client relations management trainings is the mantra: “The employer is always the employer! Don’t forget that you’re an outsider and an ayi.”
In practice, this means domestic workers should keep a distance from their employers both physically and psychologically. Trainers emphasize that the ayi should not put themselves on an equal footing at the dinner table, express their opinions on household affairs, or wear makeup or jewelry. In other words: “An ayi must behave like an ayi is expected to behave.”
The “ideal ayi,” according to these training sessions, should possess certain characteristics, such as “love” for their family, company, and client; “silence” (i.e., talking less and following the rules); “diligence”; and “toughness.” Model cases are used to keep domestic workers motivated. One woman, surnamed Li, was brought in to share her experiences as a domestic worker since arriving in Beijing in 2010. Her own family was in debt at the time: Her husband couldn’t work because of health issues, and her child was still in junior high school. A year later, however, she had managed to save tens thousands of yuan, pay off her debts, and even buy a refrigerator and washing machine — saving her family in the process.
“Ladies, I owe my achievements to the company for having built this platform!” Li told the audience.
Of course, not everyone’s experiences are so positive, and the trainings reflect the sacrifices agencies want ayi to make to keep their clients happy. Another model worker shared how she handled a difficult employer who tried to cheat her out of her agreed-upon wage. “I made it one day: a victory. And then the second day, another victory. Finally, after so many days (the nine days for which she’d been contracted), how could I give up on the last day? I told myself: I have to endure, I have to face her with a smile, I have to get the money, my persistence is about to pay off.”
Having successfully put up with her employer over the preceding week, she leveraged their unequal relationship to get the woman to pay her in full. “I kowtowed to her three times, each time bending fiercely, and it moved her,” she said. “I’m religious. My whole life, I’ve never bowed to my parents, only to the Buddha. When I got the money, I just kept waving goodbye; I wanted her to be touched. I kept bowing and thanking her. Then when I got downstairs, I couldn’t hold it in anymore: I started to cry.”
One way companies keep ayi stable through all this, despite their outsider status, is to position themselves as the women’s “maternal family” — a traditional source of comfort and support for married women.
At one big company I visited, each domestic worker had an agent responsible for caring for and guiding them. The agents play a parental role, frequently inquiring about their workers’ health, helping them find suitable employers, accompanying them on interviews, answering their questions, and even sometimes stepping in when clients fail to pay. All this is especially important to migrant ayi, who are even more dependent on the care and attention of their agents and agencies than ayi who work in their hometowns.
Not all domestic workers are convinced by this “maternal family” act. As one domestic worker I interviewed told me: “They always call themselves our maternal family, but would our real family force us to do things we don’t want to do?” Indeed, whenever domestic workers complain about working conditions, such as cameras installed in their bedrooms or being asked to sleep alongside the children they’re caring for, the companies’ first instinct is always to get them to accept the situation, rather than confront the client — something that could potentially cost them a customer.
The pressure to conform is pervasive. In particular, agencies use their control of job opportunities to shape their “ideal ayi.” Among domestic workers in the same company, agents often put those seen as “less fussy,” “not troublemakers,” and “able to handle difficulties” at the head of the line for interviews. If a domestic worker gets a reputation for being “picky” or “unable to endure difficulties,” her agent won’t go out of their way to help her find work.
Also reinforcing workers’ low status is the way companies constantly encourage their ayi to remodel their self-images to think of themselves as low-skilled women who have been “rescued” by their agents. Out of gratitude, they should “learn understanding and acceptance” and improve their overall “quality” so as to provide better services to their employers. By predicating the employer-ayi relationship on gratitude, agencies rationalize the low status of domestic workers and pressure them to work without complaint as a way to repay such “kindness.”
It’s worth noting that, in some of my interviews, domestic workers said they had actually become a part of their employers’ families. Their employers invited them to spend Lunar New Year with them and even go on holiday together as friends. But the most important contributing factor to these relationships wasn’t how hard an ayi worked. Rather, it was their employer’s willingness to recognize and respect their labor and effort.
Currently, the cultivation of such relationships isn’t a priority for domestic worker agencies. But as the country’s economy continues to develop and the demand for domestic workers rises, the employer-ayi relationship is set to become one of the most important social relationships in contemporary China. Harmony between the two sides cannot be obtained solely through endurance and gratitude on the part of one: Genuine reciprocity and equality require mutual respect.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.
(Header image: A domestic worker mops the floor at her employer’s home in Beijing, 2018. Beijing Youth Daily/People Visual)