By Tings Chak
“Is a maid’s bed different from any other kind of bed?” asks a respondent to a forum thread on asiaxpat.com, in response to someone urgently seeking such a bed in Hong Kong. The string of messages that follow include a heated debate on a “maid’s” right to space. Many employers argue: “Space is limited in Hong Kong. That is the fact.” “Maids [with beds] should consider themselves lucky.” “A maid’s bed needs to be smaller.” “Even the smallest IKEA beds (apart from the child ones) would not fit in most maid's rooms. For example the smallest IKEA mattress is… 7 cm too wide for our maid's room, and that room is large compared to many we have seen.” (1)
There are nearly 350,000 Migrant Domestic Workers (MDWs) in Hong Kong, largely women from the Philippines, Indonesia, and other countries in South and Southeast Asia. They comprise 4.7% of the population and 17% of the female workforce. They are the unacknowledged workers who raise the young, care for the elderly, and maintain domestic life. Displaced by global capitalism, they have been separated from their homelands, their families, and their communities. Upon arriving in Hong Kong they are displaced once again through the denial of personal space.
The Schedule of Accommodation and Domestic Duties, which is part of every employment contract for MDWs in Hong Kong, states:
While the average flat size in Hong Kong is relatively small and the availability of a separate servant room is not common, the Employer should provide the Helper suitable accommodation and with reasonable privacy. Examples of unsuitable accommodation are: The helper having to sleep on made-do beds in the corridor with little privacy and sharing a room with an adult/teenager of the opposite sex. (2)
Despite these vague terms, at least one third of MDWs do not have a room of their own and are made to sleep with other family members, sometimes even of the opposite sex. (3) Many sleep in living rooms, corridors, kitchens, washrooms, and storage rooms on makeshift beds above washing machines and cupboards. Furthermore, the mandatory “live-in” policy specified in all employment contracts means that domestic workers must accept these conditions.
Suitable Accommodation is a series of real estate advertisements that was part of the 2016 exhibition How to Make Space in Oasis Gallery in the Central Market of Hong Kong’s financial district—a hub of global capital. The exhibition, curated by Jennifer Davis and Su-Ying Lee of Rear View Projects, aims to create a dialogue on the struggle for space faced by everyone in Hong Kong. The permanent residents’ struggle to deal with skyrocketing real estate prices, unaffordable housing and inadequate access to child and eldercare is inextricably linked to that of domestic workers’ in search of a home, a “live-out” option, dignity, and respect. Although capitalism will continue to pit “native” workers against “foreign” workers, the struggle for the space to live and conduct one’s work in a dignified way is a common one.
The advertisements, which aesthetically borrow from the city’s ubiquitous real estate window-advertising, explore how the vague notion of “suitable accommodation” translates into built space for domestic workers. The advertisements are a fictionalized and anonymized presentation of testimonies from migrant workers, gathered from surveys and interviews conducted with the support of affiliated organizations (please see acknowledgements). They invite the viewer to explore the questions: What is a “suitable,” “habitable,” or “reasonable” space for a human being to live in? What does it mean to live in a house that is merely a workplace? How might the realities of everyday living spaces shed light on the struggle for freedom of movement and the right of abode for migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong and across the world?
It is a powerful sight on Sundays, at the podium of the HSBC headquarters—a monument to capitalism designed by Lord Norman Foster—to see hundreds of domestic workers gathered around temporary streets marked by cardboard enclosures, choreographing group dances, painting toenails, calling loved ones, napping, organizing, surviving, living. These are acts of resistance, of homemaking, of claiming space by those who have been systematically denied it, materially, politically, economically, and socially. When a worker’s house is not her home but her workplace, suitable accommodation is not a matter of maximizing square footage but of creating conditions necessary to live a fuller, more dignified life.
The respondent on asiaxpat.com who initially questioned what constitutes a “maid’s bed,” writes a final, conclusive post on the thread: “Now I know, it’s a bed that the people who buy it would refuse to sleep in and that’s made to fit in a room where people that buy it would refuse to live in…but they do feel bad about it.”
(2) Employment Contract (For A Domestic Helper recruited from abroad) (2010)
(3) Live-in Policy increases female FDW’s vulnerability to various types of abuse (2013) by Mission for Migrant Workers Limited
The author would like to thank all of the migrant domestic workers who shared their experiences and additional support from:
Asian Migrants Coordinating Body
Bethune House Migrant Women’s Refuge
Hong Kong Federation of Asian Domestic Workers Unions
Filipino Migrant Workers Union HK
Indonesian Migrant Workers Union HK
Mission for Migrant Workers
Open Door: Families for DWs
Tings Chak is an architecturally trained artist and migrant justice organizer whose work draws inspiration from anti-colonial, anti-capitalist, and spatial justice struggles. She is the author and illustrator of Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention (The Architecture Observer, 2014), which explores the politics of architectural design and representation in mass incarceration.