The ordinary household: Dirty little secret

I have a dirty little secret. Well, perhaps it’s not so little. And maybe, it’s not that dirty. But it’s something I like to keep secret. You see, my parents, for as long as I have been alive, have employed domestic workers. I don’t want to self-flagellate in public, but this fact of my life is something that I have come to look upon with a mixture of shame, confusion, righteous indignation and an understanding of the practical realities of the global economy.

I suppose if you’re going to understand where I’m coming from, you’ve got to know where it is I’m actually coming from. I am a citizen of a bustling South East Asian metropolis, where it’s common for members of the upper classes to employ domestic workers. There are over 250,000 registered domestic workers in this tiny yet imposing concrete-glass-steel city of 7 million. For families accustomed to the luxuries that life in this city has afforded them, a live-in maid is just another luxury accessory. In my tight knit South Asian community, our affluence has allowed us to enjoy these luxuries, and so from the time I was literally a baby to today we have always employed domestic workers.

This practice was not something I questioned; living in my upper middle class bubble everyone I knew either in my community or at school had hired help. Our school gates would be crowded at the end of the day with a sea of women’s faces, noisy chatter and swarms of fans fighting off the heat and humidity that is so common to this city. Our kitchens and homes would be busy, busy, busy with deft hands, sweaty brows and tired muscles from all their hard work. At dinner parties, we would laugh, drink and eat while our maids worked to keep us well fed.

It was normal. And I never thought anything of it.

And then my bubble burst.

It was time for me to grow up, to move away and to experience life. I moved half way around the world to the UK, where things were very different to how I had grown up, despite my home city’s British heritage. College would open my eyes to so many new things, but most importantly, it opened my eyes to all the ways my privileged experience made me different. Often when I mentioned to friends or acquaintances how life back home necessarily included year-round air conditioning, ridiculous amounts of shopping and live-in domestic workers, I received looks ranging from incredulousness to derision.

Apparently, not everyone was accustomed to employing domestic workers to carry out the daily chores of cooking, cleaning and care taking in the home.

That experience at college simply taught me that the practice of employing domestic workers was not universal. It wasn’t until I got to graduate school, however, that I really began to question the practice altogether. I had taken a class on global and domestic labour that more than opened my eyes.

It blew my mind.

I had never thought about how domestic workers’ working and living conditions are exploitative; that certain countries like the Philippines are heavily reliant on remittances from overseas domestic workers to keep their economy afloat; or that the women (and it’s almost always women) that leave their families and young children behind are profoundly affected by this distance. Of course, I knew that Maria* and Anna*, our live-in domestic workers, had children back home, whom they saw once every two years but until now I had never thought of this situation as anything other than business as usual.

It wasn’t until after I had taken this class that I realised that the women whom my parents have employed over the years, were people. I don’t mean to say that I didn’t think of them as human beings. Of course I did. But it never occurred to me that their individual stories came together to tell a much, much larger tale – a tale of loss, community, discovery, negotiation, acceptance and, most importantly, survival.

The women who have worked in our home over the years have undoubtedly had an impact on my life, intertwining their stories with mine. I realise this now, and as I share my story with you, I hope to share pieces of theirs too.