Maid in China

In just one generation, affluent Chinese may start speaking English with a Filipino accent.

Filipino maids are now the rage among the wealthy Chinese, who hire them not only for the household chores, but also to teach their children English.

China is the world’s most populous country. Its population of 1.3 billion makes up a fifth of humanity. While there are an increasing number of well-to-do Chinese as a result of the country’s incredible economic boom, there are still hundreds of millions, mostly in the countryside, who live precariously above the poverty line. It may therefore be strange for the Chinese to be hiring domestic help from abroad while there are so many of their countryman (countrywomen, actually) available for employment.

But the reality is this: given the choice, many Chinese would rather hire foreigners. Despite its trappings of an emerging superpower, China remains a lawless country in many aspects. Wealthy Chinese are wary that poorer ones, who come to their households as domestic workers, may end up in cahoots with robbers or, worse, kidnappers. Such incidents are reportedly on the rise. In that sense, a foreigner without local contacts is a lesser threat.

Learning English is another reason for getting foreign help. Literally millions of Chinese are now studying the language. And for those who can afford it, English is best learnt at a young age. Hence the demand for English-speaking Filipino maids, never mind their accent that could sound rather unusual to the ears of other English speakers.

There are said to be thousands of Filipinos working in China as domestic help. For a country that boasts of at least a dozen billionaires, this is hardly unusual, except for one thing – each and every one of the Filipinos is working illegally. They are mostly in China on tourist visas and work surreptitiously in households, seldom venturing out for fear of being accosted by the authorities. Once caught, they face deportation and perhaps a short time in a Chinese jail. But the pay – US$350 to US$500 a month is the usual rate – is considered worth the risk.

China does not issue work permits for foreign domestic helpers. But demand for foreign maids is huge.

Beijing is short of 20,000 to 30,000 such maids, according to employment agencies. Further south in Guangdong, the province adjacent to Hong Kong – which has a huge number of (legal) Filipino maids – the shortage is more acute. Guangzhou, the provincial capital, needs about 100,000 of them while Shenzhen, which is jointed to the New Territory part of Hong Kong, demands 120,000.

And the number is growing, especially after the year of the Pig (which started in early 2007 and ended in early 2008), considered by the Chinese as an auspicious year for having babies. The increase in the number of babies means a corresponding increase in the demand for maids. Suddenly there is greater pressure on the authorities to allow foreigners to come in as domestic help.

Zhuang Shunfu, a deputy to the Guangdong Provincial People’s Congress, is the ring leader of 13 deputies who recently put up a proposal for China to start a programme to recruit foreign maids. The proposal, which is winding its way through the channels, would help to legitimatise the many foreign maids in Guangdong and open the floodgates for more to come in through Hong Kong and the Philippines itself.

There is a growing demand for foreign household helpers, especially those from southeast Asian countries like the Philippines, who have won a good reputation in Hong Kong," said Zhuang, adding that "none of the foreign household helpers working in China's big cities are legal."

Zhuang and his group suggest the law to be amended so that two or three cities in the Guangdong province – most probably Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Zhuhai, which is a narrow water’s distance from the booming casino city of Macau – can start a pilot programme to issue visas to foreign household staff.

We need high quality household staff for affluent Chinese families as well as expatriates", Zhuang said. "High quality" staff, in China, refers to those who can speak English, which automatically excludes just about all the Chinese from the rural areas.

Talk in Guangdong is that Zhuang’s proposal stands a good chance of being accepted, since all the lawmakers are themselves in need of foreign maids. If all goes well, Filipino maids would be legal in China before the end of the year, and the "Filipinisation" of Chinese children will begin in earnest.


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lee han shihLee Han Shih is the founder, publisher and editor of asia! Magazine.

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