Maids to Order in Hong Kong: Stories of Migrant Workers by Nicole Constable Essay

Nicole Constable, in Maid to Order in Hong Kong: Stories of Migrant Workers describes the physical and psychological lives of those domestic workers in the homes of Chinese in Hong Kong, their attitude towards their own lives and work, and the attitudes of the workers and the Chinese toward one another. Constable’s primary purpose, from a scholarly perspective, is to document the particulars of the lives of these women for others interested in labor relations, cross-cultural attitudes, class differences, and the role of the state in regulating foreign workers.

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This anthropological and historical study of the lives of Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong is based on many sources of data. Constable visited organizations that advocate foreign workers, met with staff of some employment agencies, talked to government officials and above all, she led many interviews and conversations with maids. As a support to the oral histories and observations she gathered a lot of archival documents: scientific and popular literature, newspapers, articles, editorials, newsletters and papers.

As Constable announces “the first three chapters of this book provide theoretical and historical background and place Filipino domestic workers within the context of wider political economy”. This part of the book presents the reader with an excellent use of the archival data. In the sub-chapter “The Battle of Chatter Road (3-8),” which itself is a good example of discourse analysis, the Author shows how xenophobia, racial and cultural prejudices are supported by media and local establishment because of demographic and economic changes.

Next pages inform the reader about the main reason of Filipino migrations to the Hong Kong and how particular local, cultural and historical factors have influenced attitudes toward Filipino domestic workers and their treatment in Hong Kong today. What I found interesting is, that the present attitude toward maids has its roots in the tradition. A lot of Hong Kong’s employers still keep in their minds an image of the “ideal” contemporary Chinese servant (amah) who, in the past, was rather a member of a family then a salary worker.

No doubt that this symbol serves to control present maids, as it locates this occupation in a specific, cultural context. Thus, one of the main advantages of this part of the book is a strong historical background and multicultural archival data. The next three chapters describe how employment agencies, government and law regulations control and discipline foreign domestic workers, how maids become docile; powerless and passive.

Investigation of the methods used to discipline their bodies seems to be the most important issue. The Author shows how the process of recruitment and selection is oriented to mold women into docile domestic workers, becoming unconscious victims. “Applicants are fitted into uniforms, examined, photographed, x-rayed, measured and evaluated (74),” thus making the role of a maid fully standardized.

Maids have to accept very detailed regulations such as: an obligation to be patient, polite and respectful to all people in a family of the employer, never complain about a salary, and never go out without permission or not to attend any religious rituals other than simple prayer at night (84-85). All these practices turn home workers into “standardized products” for trade. Certainly, the book profits from a very detailed analysis of agencies, employers and government control over domestic workers.

Unfortunately, Constable does not describe sufficiently the process of becoming a maid from the point of view of a potential maid. For a one, becoming docile and disciplined has got a processual character, but we do not learn much about this process from the book. Nicole Constable’s Maid to Order in Hong Kong: Stories of Filipina Workers draws from the insights of power, resistance, and accommodation to demonstrate that household workers do not just passively give in to the authority of the employer and to their poor working conditions.

By centering on human agency and assuming individuals to be free agents in society, it argues that these workers subvert and resist the dominant power relations around them. Maid to Order looks at power and resistance as these are performed by Filipina domestic workers in Hong Kong. Maid to Order in Hong Kong is an interesting and in many parts an excellent example of ethnographic account of domestic workers everyday lives.

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