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Asian Female Foreign Domestic Workers as Migrants in Hong Kong

Authors:
  • Psychology without borders

Abstract

This chapter presents a discussion of the experiences of foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong: the political and social context of their work, their strengths and their psychological and physical risks, and the challenges of providing psychological counseling to this population.
Asian Female Foreign Domestic Workers as Migrants…
9
Asian Female Foreign Domestic
Workers as Migrants in
Hong Kong
Diane C. Zelman, Cecile Valantin and Michele Bland
The Context of Gendered Domestic Work in Hong Kong
Asian foreign domestic workers are a recognized mainstay of the labour
force in a number of developed Asian countries. Although foreign domestic
workers are impelled by economic need and the promise of salaries five
to fifteen times greater than can be found in their home countries, they
sacrifice much. They leave their homes, daily life with their families, their
culture, the social status of prior education or careers, and the safety net
of their communities, to care for others’ homes and children in foreign
countries, where they must adapt to a new culture and learn a new
language.
Currently, approximately 3,00,000 female foreign domestic workers
are employed in Hong Kong, almost evenly divided between workers
from the Philippines and Indonesia. These are both countries for which
export of workers serves a national economic strategy to buffer the
impact of global economic crisis (Carney, 2012; Drew, 2012). During
the 1970s, Hong Kong’s profound need for a domestic workforce was
filled by Filipina migrants when the Marcos regime wished to reduce
the impact of trade deficit and unemployment; worldwide remittances
by Philippine migrant workers now exceed US$1.5 billion per month
(Adriano, 2009; Leahy, 1990). In Indonesia, the strategic export of
foreign workers to Asia and the Middle East began during the latter
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part of the Suharto regime in the 1990s, also to buoy up a failing
economy (Sim, 2009). Thus, it is notable that although individuals
choose to migrate for various personal reasons, they are permitted to
migrate due to a national strategy crafted primarily to support the
economies of their countries of origin.
The demand for inexpensive household help in Hong Kong has
converged with the rise of an affluent expatriate community and the
growing Hong Kong Chinese middle and upper middle class. Since the
1970s, there have been increasingly more women in Hong Kong employed
outside of the home and fewer local women who are willing to take on
work of low status and pay. Sarah Jaffe and others note that although
there is much attention to the “glass ceiling” encountered by women in
various cultures who wish to enter high-status jobs, there is a profound
need for attention to the dynamic by which women of lower socio-
economic class, especially those from developing countries, are hired to
mind the homes of those same women who seek higher professional status
(Akalin, 2007; Jaffe, 2013).
Hong Kong visas for domestic work are governed by strict residency
and employment rules, such as a two-year limited contract to work with
a specific family that must be obtained via a recognized recruitment agency,
at cost to the worker and employer. Minimum salary is only US$500 per
month (Roncesvalles, 2012). Foreign domestic workers must work full-
time, 6 days a week, and may not “moonlight”, they must reside with
their domestic employer, they are not eligible for permanent resident status
in Hong Kong, and they cannot bring other family members to Hong
Kong (Asian Migrant Yearbook, 1997). Under the “New Conditions of
Stay”, also referred to as the Two Week Rule, if their contract is terminated
for any reason other than documented abuse or exploitation, a foreign
domestic worker must find a new contract or leave the country within 2
weeks of termination of employment (Immigration Department of
HKSAR, 2008). However, foreign domestic workers often refrain from
reporting violations such as sexual or physical abuse, due to the
requirement that they not work nor receive any income or financial
compensation during the process of adjudication, or out of fear that they
will be compelled to return home under the Two Week Rule. Legal actions
may be costly, time consuming, and favour the employer (Benitez, 2007).
Legal and advocacy efforts on behalf of foreign domestic workers to
change the Two Week Rule, and to offer permanent residency to foreign
domestic workers after 7 years, have been unsuccessful, leading some to
assert that such laws constitute institutionalized oppression that unfairly
Asian Female Foreign Domestic Workers as Migrants…
Psyche of Asian Society136
targets those immigrants who are domestic workers (BBC, 2013; Drew,
2012).
The Indonesian and Filipina foreign domestic worker populations
are demographically distinct, which leads to different life trajectories in
Hong Kong. Filipino workers, on average, are older, are likely to have
some post-secondary education, and are much more likely to come to
Hong Kong with English language proficiency. Many are already skilled
workers, such as nurses, teachers, or office workers, who are willing to
trade loss of status for higher salaries as domestic workers in Hong Kong
(Tillu, 2005). Filipina foreign domestic worker activists have established
many of the existing Hong Kong migrant labour support organizations.
In contrast, Indonesian foreign domestic workers are on average
younger and less well-educated than their Filipina counterparts. The
Indonesian government requires them to serve a period of residency away
from their family at migrant training camps, where conditions have been
described as substandard and personal safety is often compromised
(O’Connor, 2012). Workers are expected to incur the high cost of their
travel and training, so that they often arrive in Hong Kong needing to
work off considerable debt. In this way, institutions in Indonesia may
contribute to the vulnerability of their own country’s women migrants.
O’Connor (2012) noted that Indonesian foreign domestic workers are
more likely than Filipina domestic workers to be paid below the minimum
required salary, and without English or Cantonese language skills, they
may be unable to exercise their legal rights. Thus, they can appear more
attractive to some prospective employers who are looking for more
submissive household help. The contrast in experience between Filipina
and Indonesian foreign domestic workers is a powerful illustration of the
vulnerability to exploitation that comes from economic hardship, lack of
education, lack of local language skills and lack of advocacy by an
established community (Raj & Silverman, 2002).
Hong Kong is generally a more desirable destination for foreign
domestic workers than the Middle East or other Asian nations, due to a
stronger tradition of protective labour laws, despite these laws being
sometimes insufficiently enforced (Asian Migrant Yearbook, 1997,
Constable, 2007/1997). The Mission for Migrant Workers (MFMW),
Hong Kong’s oldest social services organization for foreign domestic
workers, reported that in 2010 and 2011, the chief presenting complaints
of foreign domestic worker clients were unfair practices of recruitment
agencies (36%), poor labour conditions and other disputes with employers
(45%), legal concerns (8%) and indebtedness (5%). Clients reported
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working 16-17 hours a day, 6 days per week, and expressed the following
additional current concerns: insufficient food provided for the foreign
domestic worker at home (34%), having no private room (56%), being
expected to perform illegal work or problems with illegal work (9%),
maltreatment (18%), physical/sexual assault (12%) and underpayment
(11%).
Power Relations in Foreign Domestic Work in Hong Kong
In a series of insightful ethnographies of foreign domestic workers in
Hong Kong, the anthropologist Nicole Constable (2007/1997) has
explored the power relations inherent in domestic care in Hong Kong.
Referencing the work of Michel Foucault, she showed how the
commodification of workers begins during the recruitment process and
continues throughout employment in the form of both implicit and explicit
control of the bodies and behaviours of foreign domestic workers.
Recruitment agencies ask personal questions of prospective foreign
domestic workers that would be considered illegal areas of inquiry in the
U.S., and applicants adapt their responses to fit the portrait of docile
prospective employees. As such, in order to “sell” an applicant to a family,
both the agencies and prospective employees consciously craft a false
identity consistent with the kind of stereotypical female role described in
classic feminist psychology texts: subordinate, eager and without alternate
options (Miller, 1986). For example, applicants underreport their
education and occupational attainments in order to appear less threatening
to employers.
At the same time, foreign domestic workers are advised or required
to change their appearance in ways that are de-feminizing; for example,
they may be asked to cut their hair, refrain from wearing make-up, and to
conform to strict standards concerning length and fit of clothing. These
restrictions reflect a prevailing view of the foreign domestic worker as a
sexual rival who might wish to seduce the male of the house to secure
permanent residency in Hong Kong or to obtain financial gain. In our
clinical practice (Cecile and Michele) our clients were very much aware
of such attitudes; some of our clients have asserted that they are devout
Catholics or Muslims and in particular have expressed rage at rumours
that foreign domestic workers come to Hong Kong only to work in the
sex trade. They have been advised by friends and employment agencies
that in order to keep their job and to avoid any suggestion of immoral
motives, they should interact as little as possible with the man of the
Asian Female Foreign Domestic Workers as Migrants…
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house, thus implicitly colluding with the image of domestic worker as
seductress. It has been commented that portrayal of women of colour as
promiscuous or predatory serves the purpose of reinforcing existing power
structures and assuaging the guilt of those with greater resources (Bullock,
Wyche and Williams, 2001; Greene, 1994).
Constable (2007/1997) described other ways in which behaviour of
foreign domestic workers is tightly regulated by some employers, such as
by lack of privacy and highly detailed daily work schedules that dictate
when they must eat, sleep and bathe, as shown below in a vignette from a
client at the setting in which we provide therapy:
On her first day of work, Flora was handed a long list of rules,
with a minute-by-minute daily work schedule that required all
tasks and meals to be performed in a particular way at a specified
time. All household items had a “correct” place, and she would
be scolded if she did not return the items to their proper place
and position. Flora reported that her employers were always at
home and monitored and criticized her. Although, she had no
other job and needed to send most of her salary back to her
family to pay for her children’s school fees and food, she thought
she would go “crazy” if she stayed. She resigned after 2 months,
but according to the Two Week Rule, she was expected to return
home immediately. In defiance of her visa, she moved in with a
friend, took on illegal work, and sought help from a support
organization, who helped her find a new legal contract.
Flora described feeling powerless, infantilized, and imprisoned.
Micro-management in work settings breeds passivity, token behaviour,
inefficiencyand low self-esteem among employees; in home settings, it is
part of the spectrum of coercive control in domestic abuse (Cangemi,
2000; Lombard & McMillan, 2013). Working and living in the same
residence, along with labour laws that constrict residential and employment
options, can create a loss of boundary that transforms the domestic worker
into a “fictitious family member” and creates risk for exploitation (Akalin,
2007).
Empowering Influences
Constable (2007, 1997) encourages readers to resist essentializing foreign
domestic workers in terms of victim-oppressor mentality, and to tune in
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to the spectrum of ways, from very subtle to very public, in which foreign
domestic worker simplicitly exert power and resistance in their daily lives.
This is demonstrated in the following clinical vignette of a client served
at our agency:
Malaya, a Filipina foreign domestic worker, was able to use the
encouragement she received from our support services agency
to “take on” a recruitment agency that refused to reimburse her
for an airplane ticket. Malaya contacted the police and ultimately
got her money back. She became an advocate for other domestic
workers facing labour or agency disputes.
In the vignette above, Malaya initiated contact with migrant support
services neither as a consciously political nor apolitical person; she needed
to address an immediate financial crisis. Her experiences of support and
advocacy emboldened her to provide the same to others. Anna Stetsenko
(2012) proposed that taking on an activist stance is part of a developmental
path to personhood; she notes that by engaging in such roles, people
become “agents not only for whom ‘things matter’ but who themselves
matter in history, culture and society” (Stetsenko, 2012: 144).
When personal identity is reaffirmed by foreign domestic workers,
notes Constable, this serves as counterpoint to the social control
mechanisms inherent in their employment the other 6 days of the week.
One of these is the ubiquitous Sunday rest day, during which thousands
of foreign domestic workers congregate in the elite commercial areas and
parks of Hong Kong, essentially “privatizing” public space for rest, parties,
prayer groups, commerce and social activism (O’Connor, 2012; Tillu,
2011). The use of mobile phones can also be seen as a mechanism to
reinforce personal identity; social media is now heavily used to strengthen
connections with family and other foreign domestic workers, to strategize
ways to set reasonable limits with employers, and to mobilize activist
efforts (Tillu, 2011). An example of subtle resistance is sharing humour
that ridicules their employers or local citizens. Carol Gilligan has similarly
emphasized the value of social connection as “a manifestation of a more
general resistance to losing the grounds of our humanity” (Gilligan, 2011:
12). Rina, a client who joined a support group at the agency in which we
work, eventually found such relatedness and personhood on her Sunday
rest day:
Aara grew up in a small Muslim village in Indonesia and moved
to Hong Kong for domestic work. In Hong Kong, she changed
her name to Rina when she became a Christian. On her Sunday
Asian Female Foreign Domestic Workers as Migrants…
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rest day, Rina gets up early and goes to the church to help set up
for the day’s activities. She brings family leftovers and other
food to share; she sings in the worship team and leads a small
Bible study group. In the afternoon she remains at the church
and takes additional classes in English, Bible studies, and cooking.
Rina says that this is her most important time each week; she
returns to her job happy to have spent time with friends and
learning about God.
Romantic Relationships and Sexuality
Amy Sim’s innovative body of work has focused primarily on Indonesian
foreign domestic workers, including their sexual identity in relationship
to sexual and gender politics in both Indonesia and Hong Kong (Sim,
2009). Sim’s cautioned against limiting public discourse on foreign
domestic worker sexuality to stereotypes, such as the foreign domestic
worker as victim of sexual abuse, promiscuous female, threatening lesbian,
or temptress of the male of the house. The following clinical vignette
demonstrates the complex relationship between power, sexuality,
motherhood and disenfranchisement for a foreign domestic worker who
received services at our clinic:
Viti has been working for 10 years in Hong Kong as a domestic
helper and had saved enough money to support her family and
buy a land in Indonesia for a house. She has an on-and-off
relationship with a married Pakistani man, and is now pregnant
by him. Viti is desperate. She has become isolated from her only
social support network because she avoids her Indonesian friends
due to fear of gossip and stigma, and she has also lost her job
because of the pregnancy. When she asked her family to sell the
property she owned, she discovered that her father had already
sold it and the money had gone to pay gambling debts. Her family
also made it clear that she and her baby born out of wedlock
would be unwelcome. In Hong Kong, her boyfriend told her
that he might help support her but only if the baby is a boy and
only if she returns to Indonesia.
By entering motherhood, Viti lost her financial independence and
became an “overstay” on her visa. She became alienated from her
Indonesian family and her own friends: once an independent woman
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providing for a whole Indonesian family, she now experiences her fate as
determined by two men: her father and the father of her baby. Sheentered
psychotherapy to manage overwhelming affect in the face of profound
personal decisions, and she spent her counselling sessions making lists of
pros vs. cons that exemplified the limited choices she faced. Viti began
her romantic relationship out of what appeared to be lasting mutual
affection, her partner did not wish to use condoms and she had limited
understanding of their use; her boyfriend married a woman of his own
ethnicity and continued his relationship with Viti. Her employer (illegally)
terminated her foreign domestic worker contract due to her pregnancy,
so that under the Two Week Rule she was now illegally living in Hong
Kong, however, she was energetic and resourceful and wished to find a
way to earn money, in order to avoid returning home and facing likely
rejection by her family in Indonesia. The benefits of focusing on women
like Viti as exemplars of the victimization of foreign domestic workers
are obvious; such awareness might ultimately mobilize needed public
support, advocacy, and education. However, viewing a client like Viti
primarily as victim (as warned by Constable, 2007) may make it difficult
for her psychotherapist to fully empathize with the complex factors that
lead women to enter into such relationships.
Sim (2009) argued that in much of Indonesia, women are considered
powerful only in the context of supporting local and national agendas for
creating, raising, caring for, or educating the next generation. Such
perspectives are reminiscent of the concept of the motherhood mandate
(Russo, 1976) by which a culture frames the success of females only in
terms of procreation. Sim (2009) described long standing traditions in
Indonesia that shape female submissiveness around sexuality that extend
to restricted access to knowledge about the female body, female sexuality,
contraception, and protection from sexually transmitted diseases. She
noted, for example, that unmarried women in Indonesia are generally
unable to acquire contraception without special permission. Lynn
Freedman describes the state-controlled restriction of information about
sexuality as a method by which women “become instruments or tools of
state policies….that deprive them of the ability to express their sexuality
safely…it thus involves state control over some of the basic elements of
what it means to be human” (Freedman, 1995: 1).
Although many Indonesian foreign domestic workers primarily
migrate for economic opportunity, they also seek the novelty of exploring
life in an international city with its attendant anonymity, social freedoms,
and opportunity for romantic and sexual exploration. Relationships may
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fulfil needs for intimacy, security, and exploration, but many of these go
badly, with high risk of sexually transmitted disease, domestic violence,
and unwanted pregnancy (which usually implies illegal termination from
the foreign domestic worker contract) and entering the illegal labour force.
As the Indonesian domestic workforce is almost entirely female, many
heterosexual romantic relationships in Hong Kong occur between
Indonesian women and other immigrant men, most commonly South Asian
and African men, often of Muslim faith. These relationships are often
complicated by both partners’ marginal immigration and social status, the
man’s marital status in Hong Kong or in his home country, and expectations
of sex, often unprotected. This is a sensitive area to broach, as certainly
lasting relationships are formed; however, the Indonesian foreign domestic
worker community and our mental health practice abound with stories of
the disastrous impact of sexual transgression (Sim, 2009).
Recent popular press has also explored the topic of Lesbian foreign
domestic workers in Hong Kong (Fenn, 2010; Tam, 2012). An oft-quoted
statistic is that as many as 20 per cent of Indonesian foreign domestic
workers are Lesbian, but this statistic appears to have been frequently
cited from anecdotal accounts referenced in Fenn’s (2010) newspaper
article rather than from any systematic study. For Filipino foreign domestic
workers, there are established gathering spaces on the Sunday rest day in
the Central District of Hong Kong where Lesbian women can meet. Filipino
foreign domestic worker Lesbians have formed a support network,
Filguys, which began as a small social organization in 2007 and has grown
to a local and international support network of over 300 members; Filguys
also raises consciousness about gay and lesbian needs in the foreign
domestic worker community (Tam, 2012).
Sim (2009) asserted that it is not appropriate to understand these
relationships from a Western perspective, which considers such
relationships as primarily an outgrowth of desire for same-sex emotional
and sexual intimacy. Sim (2009) explained that lesbian identity among
foreign domestic workers, as an identity in itself, is only a nascent
phenomenon. She indicated that many women involved in lesbian
relationships had no lesbian relationships in Indonesia and do not consider
themselves lesbian, but they are described as such by non-lesbian friends.
Based on her interviews with lesbian Indonesians foreign domestic
workers, she traced lesbian relationships to a wish for romantic contact
in an environment in which predatory behaviour of males is common,
physical intimacy is seeded by close spaces in the domestic worker camps,
and fear of pregnancy. She also described a “trendiness” associated with
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lesbian sexuality that can be considered in the context of self-definition
and freedom from male definition and domination. Some lesbian women
interviewed by Sim indicated that they prefer to date foreign domestic
worker tombois, women who dress with masculine clothing and hair,
because they were more compassionate, safer and less exploitative mates
than men.
Not much is known about the sexuality of foreign domestic workers
when they return to their home country, although Sim (2009) reported
anecdotal evidence that some women who were romantically involved
only with other women, enter into traditional heterosexual marriages.
What is fairly certain is that Indonesian women who have had lesbian
relationships in Hong Kong return to a homophobic society in which
such relationships are closeted and stigmatized, and that unmarried
heterosexual women who return with children or sexually transmitted
diseases, face disgrace and exclusion.
Mental Health Concerns
A recent text on mental health among migrants has noted that foreign
domestic workers worldwide are a highly psychologically vulnerable
population due to discrimination, marginalization, abuse, hard work, and
isolation (Bhugra & Gupta, 2011). Bhugra and Gupta (2011) noted that
although the media portrays the most egregious cases of chronic labour
abuse and domestic violence, the most typical stress for foreign domestic
workers in Hong Kong is either relational, such as family, romantic and
friendship problems, or chronic work-related stress.
A retrospective chart review of three Hong Kong hospitals delineated
the psychiatric problems and life stressors among 27 Filipino and 14
Indonesian female foreign domestic workers who had a first inpatient
psychiatric admission in Hong Kong (Lau, Cheng, Chow, Ungvari, &
Leung, 2009). The most common ICD-10 diagnosis (approximately 64
per cent of both samples) was acute and transient psychotic disorder, a
brief psychotic episode characterized by hallucinations, delusions, and/or
incoherence, which usually subsides with brief psychosocial and
medication intervention (Marneros & Pillman, 2002). Significant recent
psychosocial stressors were reported for almost 90 per cent of the sample,
with death or illness of relatives reported in about one-half, marital and
other romantic concerns in one-third, and job-related concerns in
approximately one-quarter of the sample. Typical acute stressors included
concerns about the upcoming renewal of the two-year worker contract,
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financial problems, and abuse and exploitation by employers. Suicidal
ideation was reported in 7.1 per cent and 22.2 per cent of the Filipino and
Indonesian psychiatric samples.
Two recent studies (Chen, Benet-Martinez, & Bond, 2008; Chen,
Benet-Martinez, Wu, Lam, & Bond, 2013) considered the role of bicultural
identity integration, instrumental acculturative skills, such as language
proficiency, and acculturative stress on the psychological adjustment of
several samples of individuals in Hong Kong, including Filipino foreign
domestic workers. Bicultural identity integration was defined as the ability
to integrate two cultures into one’s behaviour and identity, and
acculturative stress was measured based on perceived discrimination and
problems in intercultural interactions. The strongest predictors of poor
psychological adjustment were trait neuroticism, poorer English and
Chinese skills, and higher acculturative stress (Chen et al., 2008).
Bicultural identity was unrelated to psychological adjustment, leading the
authors to speculate that for pragmatic intercultural skills such as language
ability exerted more impact on psychological adjustment than bicultural
identity.
These studies show that when severe psychiatric conditions emerge,
it is often at times of family, relationship, and work crises. In our (Michele
and Cecile) practice, we note that stress related to the Two Week Rule is
a common presenting problem; it creates cycles of anxiety and depression
at time of contract renewal or during time of dissatisfaction with a current
employer; leading to a desperation to obtain the first available new contract
even if it does not seem satisfactory. Becoming an “overstay” and taking
illegal jobs puts her at risk of exploitation, legal action, jail and deportation.
The direct impact of Hong Kong residency rules on mental health cannot
be ascertained, but they create predictable crises associated with
psychiatric risk, risk that might be reduced if attempts to broaden
immigration privileges for foreign domestic workers are instituted.
Remoteness from loved ones at times of death or crisis in the family are
also a time of emotional risk that can be addressed if family leave policies
permit foreign domestic workers to return home during crisis without
risking loss of contract. The studies of Chen and colleagues described
above suggest that minority stress among foreign domestic workers is
compounded by lack of language proficiency and instrumental cultural
skills and experiences of acculturative/intercultural stress. This research
suggests that interventions that provide “training” that includes language
education and combatting anti-immigrant discrimination would improve
the mental health and psychological functioning of foreign domestic
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workers. Such programmes are offered at a number of support missions
in Hong Kong, yet these are underutilized.
The following depicts a successful therapeutic encounter at the agency
in which we (Michele and Cecile) work, when timely help was initiated
by a client’s employer:
In Indonesia, after learning that her fiancé was actually married,
Lia started going out, drinking and smoking; she considered
suicide, and she made cuts on her arms with sharp objects. After
a few months, her family convinced her to work abroad, and she
moved to Hong Kong to work as a domestic helper for a local
Chinese family. Despite her determination to do a good job, she
started drinking again. Her employer noticed that something was
wrong and found her a therapist. Lia saw me (Michele) every
week for 3 months and said that what she most appreciated was
that “we talked a lot.” She said she learned to notice when she
had negative thoughts about her ex-boyfriend and to deal with
them before they affected her feelings and behaviour. Now, when
she feels angry at people, she knows she needs to express her
concerns, remove herself from the situation, and calm herself,
by saying a prayer. She said that this simple technique has helped
her through some tough times.
Lia came to Hong Kong already in considerable emotional distress
when she learned that her boyfriend in Indonesia was married, distress
that could in turn be traced to dismissive attitudes towards women in her
host country, her self-blame and shame in the eyes of her family and
community, and her use of alcohol to manage these feelings. It is notable
that so much of her successful counselling focused on recognition and
management of anger, which is described by Jean Baker Miller as a core
experience of individuals of subordinate groups (Miller, 1985). This therapy
legitimized Lia’s anger and encouraged her to find ways to express it or
manage it without self-harm. Miller (1985) noted that women live in both
relational and economic dependency which makes them vulnerable to both
fear of relational loss as well as anger. She recognized that dominant
groups in a society do not consider the need to care for the personhood of
those with less power. In Lia’s situation, a compassionate employer,
available support services and her own efforts and insight helped her
regain resilience.
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Providing Mental Health Intervention for Foreign Domestic Workers
in Crisis
Two of us (Michele and Cecile) have provided services in a shelter and
social services setting for foreign domestic workers who are pregnant or
who have recently had babies while working in Hong Kong. The goal of
the organization is to help clients to access legal, educational, and other
support services for themselves and their child. Their pregnancy made
our clients particularly at risk for social, legal, and emotional problems,
and some have HIV+ status. Many of our clients have been terminated
from their foreign domestic worker contracts due to their pregnancies.
Although the Two Week Rule may require a return to their home country,
some anticipate poverty and family rejection if they return with HIV+
status, pregnant or with a child born out of wedlock, especially if the
child is of mixed race. Describing the severe ostracism, sexism and racism
she expected to encounter in Indonesia, one of our clients explained that
“women with HIV+ are sent away to a place in the mountains where
someone brings food to you.” Others may wish to stay in Hong Kong
with the father of their child, even if the relationship is not satisfying or if
one or both of them face potential deportation. Although our clients may
have temporary shelter, they have few financial resources, and by the
time they locate support organizations, they have often overstayed their
visa and entered into undocumented status. Some women, based on their
experiences in Hong Kong and anticipated treatment in their home country,
make asylum and torture claims at the United Nations High Commissioner
for Refugees. The inquiry for such claims usually takes between 1 and 3
years. During that time, they get help from the International Social
Services, an International non-governmental social services organization
with a migrant programme under the Hong Kong Social Welfare
Department that provides food, shelter, and basic health needs to asylum
and torture claimants.
Social workers or case workers initially help our clients obtain
concrete help such as housing, clothing and food, and assist with visa
applications or other legal procedures. Clients are referred for counselling
if the social worker believes it will be beneficial. Few clients request to
speak with a psychotherapist, and if they do, it is for a very specific need.
Clients seek practical advice such as information on baby care and
parenting, help with problem solving and decision-making, romantic
concerns and relational problems with friends and family. Clients may
also come to therapy with severe anxiety, depression, and thoughts of
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harming themselves, and rarely, they use drugs or alcohol to manage
unendurable life circumstances.
Our Indonesian clients can seem to be passive and submissive or
passive-aggressive with their partners. Their descriptions of their current
relationships correspond with patterns often seen in cycles of domestic
violence; they experience beatings, threats, and extreme control over their
behaviour by their partner, with periods of calm and superficial resolution.
They often condemn themselves for their predicament or assume that
God is punishing them for sins, such as having sex outside of marriage.
We were at first surprised at how little agency these clients exert in their
romantic relationships, because they are often quite resourceful in other
aspects of their lives: they start small businesses, they assist friends and
relatives, and despite extremely limited means, they care well for their
babies. But, at least from a Western woman point of view, they seem to
relinquish all their agency and independence when they enter a romantic
relationship, and adopt a new identity, one of a submissive and obedient
wife whose life is entirely ruled by her partner. After seeing several clients
with this similar pattern of behaviour, what emerged was that male
domination was so deeply embedded in the Indonesian culture, where
men can marry up to four wives, that women accepted it as the inevitable
norm and obligation.
Most of our clients are unfamiliar with psychotherapy, or think of it
only as “talking about my problems.” They do not share our
conceptualization of psychotherapy as a gradual process of expression,
reflection, catharsis, and working through over time, nor do they experience
those featuresas particularly relevant to their problem-saturated daily lives.
This is consistent with research findings that women of low socio-economic
status do not typically utilize psychotherapy (Azocar, Miranda & Dwyer,
1996). Even for presenting problems such as physical or emotional abuse,
pregnancy loss, or considering placing their baby for adoption, the modal
number of sessions at our clinic is one or two. Notably, Laura Smith (Smith,
2005) identified the idea that poor people are too overwhelmed to utilize
psychotherapy as “essentially classist while containing a grain of truth” (p.
691). She recommends that feminist therapists carefully reflect on ways in
which distancing themselves from the poor contributes to underutilization
of care, and recommends a more flexible, psychoeducational, and
community based therapeutic practice. We agree, and note that a supportive
therapist can provide validation and catharsis, help with managing strong
feelings, education, advocacy, crisis intervention, assistance in locating
resources, and practical problem-solving.
Asian Female Foreign Domestic Workers as Migrants…
Psyche of Asian Society148
We have found that in the context of one-or two-session interventions,
therapists may be tempted to try to cover too much; they need to orient
their efforts towards providing help in a single brief interaction. That
being said, one of us (Michele) led a successful support group with full
attendance for several sessions, and we believe that short-term skills or
problem-focused small groups may best engage the clients to help one
another, consistent with recommendations of others that for clients of
low income and highly stressful lives, group therapies often mobilize
greater continuity and attendance (Grote et al., 2007). Short-term
workshops are also popular; among the workshops offered at our centre,
our clients report a preference for topics related to relationships and
emotional management.
Therapy begins with an assessment of immediate needs or crisis (e.g.,
safety, food, shelter, intervention for suicidal ideation). Because of the
high cost of business space and the limited funds available for private
therapy rooms and childcare, our sessions sometimes feel chaotic; a clients’
child is crying and walking around, we are meeting in the corner of a
room with a simple curtain drawn for privacy, we speak in low tones on a
sofa with others walking by, the client is holding back tears while telling
of a beating or of a recent loss. One client asked to be seen at a local
McDonald’s rather than at the organization proper, because the noise and
anonymity of the setting felt more comfortable to her. Still, when we can,
we try to cultivate an atmosphere of calm, which is the foundation for
reflection, clear thought, and problem solving. Calm can be found by
sitting quietly, by encouraging a moment of silence, or by meditation.
Sometimes a client has a personal ritual or prayer ritual (e.g., Muslim or
Christian) that she associates with feelings of calm. Being able to access
this calm state can also help her at other times when she is trying to
manage anxiety and anger or when she in need of quickly assessing and
managing a dangerous situation.
Therapists working with foreign domestic workers need to be aware
of, and have an outlet to explore, their countertransference experiences.
Clients often miss sessions and end therapy without termination. Therapists
who are accustomed to growing trust and relatedness with clients over
time may be disappointed if little relationship building occurs. These
interactions can sometimes leave the therapist wondering about their
purpose and their impact. One of us (Cecile) learned early in training that
our value to our client might be conditional on our willingness to step out
of our typical office role:
149
Annisa had seen me several times, when she phoned, very upset,
because the International Social Services officer would not give
her baby formula. She was breastfeeding but felt that it was unfair
since her friends got it whether they were breastfeeding or not.
She wanted my help immediately. My first thought was that this
was not my role, and I recommended she call her social worker.
You can imagine how useful she thought I was after that! It
took the strong recommendation from her social worker to get
her back in therapy with me.
We experience helplessness and rage towards the men who victimize
our clients. It is common for therapists to feel overwhelmed with the
complexity of their clients’ life problems and to wish to address everything
at once as one of us (Cecile) experienced,
One of my clients, Nenita, was a new mother with HIV. She
couldn’t find a job because potential employers would turn her
down when they learned she was HIV+. I struggled not to try to
find her a job. Iimagined employing her myself or giving her
money. I was horrified to hear about the man who infected her.
I wanted to post signs on every building to warn women to
beware of this destructive man. I wanted to install condom
machines and posters explaining about safe sex. Each time I met
with her, I would first breathe deeply and remind myself to just
try to do at least one helpful thing.
We have found it useful to remember that although psychotherapy is
generally time-limited and focused on immediate problems, successful
resolution of a single problem can empower a client to solve other problems
in their lives or to advocate for other foreign domestic workers. We also
focus on the strength and resourcefulness of our clients in other spheres
of their lives. Over time, the clients at our agency form their own supportive
subculture, meeting at weekly psychoeducational talks and for outings
and play dates with their children, even accompanying each other to speak
with employers or agencies.
We have found that Indonesian foreign domestic workers often
present a calm and dignified demeanor, with a tendency to be resigned to
the hardship of their current situation, which leads them to adopt behaviour
that can appear passive. For example, they can wait in Hong Kong for
months or years in extremely precarious conditions hoping for change in
Asian Female Foreign Domestic Workers as Migrants…
Psyche of Asian Society150
their romantic partners instead of identifying or acting on their best
options. This seemingly passive behaviour can be bewildering at first,
especially in times of crisis. Therapists working with these clients,
therefore, need to keep in mind that this behaviour does not preclude our
ability to work with them on decision-making and problem solving
strategies. We have realized that a key to supporting and empowering
our clients is to acknowledge their approach to life problems and
accompany them in their reflections, rather than to try to make them adopt
our own ways of reasoning that we would qualify as rational. For instance,
understandably, they resent being told that they need to go back to
Indonesia, not because it is not true, but simply because they need to own
that decision.
Conclusion
When foreign domestic workers move to Hong Kong, they do so as part
of a national economic strategy to strengthen their home country. In many
ways they leave behind what little power and privilege that they once
had, and they attempt to reassert their status, with varying degrees of
success (Constable 2007/1997). They embody an intersectionality of
disempowered identities and they experience multiple jeopardy of
oppression and exploitation (Crenshaw, 1991). This is because they are
women who move from one patriarchal culture to another, because they
are from minority cultures in the countries to which they migrate and
therefore are likely to experience ethnic discrimination, because they have
come because of dire economic need, and because their nationality,
language and immigrant status leave them vulnerable to anti-immigrant
sentiment and exploitation.
Supporting the psychological health of foreign domestic workers will
require continued efforts on numerous levels in Hong Kong, including
working towards changing labour and immigration laws, as well as public
health and social services intervention. Lau and colleagues (Lau et al.,
2009) emphasized that in order to reduce mental health risk, it is necessary
to improve the social status and working conditions of foreign domestic
workers. In Hong Kong, this would include “relaxing the regulations
against family reunification, lifting restrictions to live-in domestic work
and allowing temporary settlement on overseas labour contracts” (Lau
et al., 2009: 575). The fact that severe psychiatric illness occurs within
the context of severe psychosocial stress suggests the need for community
outreach to help those facing personal crises. Increased utilization of social
151
service centres indicates that these facilities can also function as first-
line response or referral centres for mental health screening and
intervention. Additional research is needed on the prevalence of mental
health concerns among foreign domestic workers and the most effective
counselling strategies for treating them. Focused training on short-term
counselling interventions could increase the effectiveness of trainees and
therapists who are new to work with foreign domestic workers. Utilizing
lay therapists within the foreign domestic worker population and group
interventions can extend the effectiveness of social service agencies and
potentially provide more culturallysensitive care.
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Over the last two decades, women have organized against the almost routine violence that shapes their lives. Drawing from the strength of shared experience, women have recognized that the political demands of millions speak more powerfully than the pleas of a few isolated voices. This politicization in turn has transformed the way we understand violence against women. For example, battering and rape, once seen as private (family matters) and aberrational (errant sexual aggression), are now largely recognized as part of a broad-scale system of domination that affects women as a class. This process of recognizing as social and systemic what was formerly perceived as isolated and individual has also characterized the identity politics of people of color and gays and lesbians, among others. For all these groups, identity-based politics has been a source of strength, community, and intellectual development. The embrace of identity politics, however, has been in tension with dominant conceptions of social justice. Race, gender, and other identity categories are most often treated in mainstream liberal discourse as vestiges of bias or domination-that is, as intrinsically negative frameworks in which social power works to exclude or marginalize those who are different. According to this understanding, our liberatory objective should be to empty such categories of any social significance. Yet implicit in certain strands of feminist and racial liberation movements, for example, is the view that the social power in delineating difference need not be the power of domination; it can instead be the source of political empowerment and social reconstruction. The problem with identity politics is not that it fails to transcend difference, as some critics charge, but rather the opposite- that it frequently conflates or ignores intra group differences. In the context of violence against women, this elision of difference is problematic, fundamentally because the violence that many women experience is often shaped by other dimensions of their identities, such as race and class. Moreover, ignoring differences within groups frequently contributes to tension among groups, another problem of identity politics that frustrates efforts to politicize violence against women. Feminist efforts to politicize experiences of women and antiracist efforts to politicize experiences of people of color' have frequently proceeded as though the issues and experiences they each detail occur on mutually exclusive terrains. Al-though racism and sexism readily intersect in the lives of real people, they seldom do in feminist and antiracist practices. And so, when the practices expound identity as "woman" or "person of color" as an either/or proposition, they relegate the identity of women of color to a location that resists telling. My objective here is to advance the telling of that location by exploring the race and gender dimensions of violence against women of color. Contemporary feminist and antiracist discourses have failed to consider the intersections of racism and patriarchy. Focusing on two dimensions of male violence against women-battering and rape-I consider how the experiences of women of color are frequently the product of intersecting patterns of racism and sexism, and how these experiences tend not to be represented within the discourse of either feminism or antiracism... Language: en
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