We all need to stop using the terms ‘maid’ and ‘helper’ | Opinion

Illustration: Sai Pennell. “Edelweiss – Emma” (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Illustration: Sai Pennell. “Edelweiss – Emma” (CC BY-SA 2.0)

All of us — governments, employers, the media and each of us, as individuals — need to stop using the words maid and helper (and equivalent terms such as pembantu in Indonesian or katulong in Tagalog) to refer to domestic workers.

What is so wrong with those words? Is there something shameful about being a maid or a helper?

Absolutely not. Domestic workers are easily among the hardest working and most self-sacrificing members of our societies.

But the terms maid and helper are demeaning and harmful — not because they’re “politically incorrect,” but because, in a very real way, they have a direct impact on how domestic workers are perceived and exploited.

If you believe there’s nothing wrong with those words, I would ask you to think about the word servant.

Ask yourself — would you ever use the word “servant” to describe a maid or a helper in modern times?

Why wouldn’t you? Their job descriptions are, basically, the same. Isn’t a servant essentially a domestic worker?

It’s because you know servant is not the right word to describe a domestic worker. You know the word servant isn’t right at all. It’s an ugly word — a relic of a bygone era, a time of rigid class distinctions and unquestioned social injustice.    

The word servant serves to perpetuate a mindset that allows one person to be considered completely inferior to another because of the lowliness of their job. There can be no sense of equality between a servant and their employer, just as there can be no sense of equality between a slave and their master.  

“Helper is more vulgar to pronounce,” said a domestic worker activist in Hong Kong. “It has a low profile… it is just inside the home, but worker suggests you are equal to your employer.”
HK Helpers Campaign report

We have collectively, as a society, accepted that servant is a bad word. And so it has largely been erased from our vocabularies.

So how are the terms maid or helper any different from servant? I’d argue they aren’t. I’d argue they help maintain a way of thinking in which domestic workers can be considered a different class than “regular” workers. A lesser class, with fewer rights and fewer repercussions for their exploitation.

This is not just a matter of semantics. We can see the effects of this mindset everyday, codified in the legal systems of numerous countries, perpetuating the small systemic injustices domestic workers must endure everyday and allowing the horrifying exploitation, abuse and violence that have taken far, far too many lives.

‘You are just a helper’

Most people who use the term helper to describe a domestic worker mean to use it in a neutral way. But if you don’t think helper can also be used as a derogatory term, you haven’t been paying attention.


In Hong Kong, “domestic helper” is the official term used almost universally by the government, employers and the media instead of domestic worker.

In 2015, the HK Helpers Campaign conducted a survey of foreign domestic workers from the Philippines and Indonesia and 72% of those asked said they preferred to be called “domestic worker” instead of “domestic helper”:

When asked to explain their choices, domestic workers who preferred “worker” gave longer and more politically sensitive rationales than those answering “helper.” That was especially the case with Filipinos, most of whom speak English fluently. English is less common among Indonesians.

“We are not slaves, we are workers,” one Filipina said, echoing a rally cry used at local protest marches. Another said that the term “helper” was “degrading.”

Many reacted to suggestions about class and status inherent in the two words. “Helper is more vulgar to pronounce,” said a woman in Central. “It has a low profile… it is just inside the home, but worker suggests you are equal to your employer. It is higher than helper, helper is only working in a certain way or a certain place.”


There were those who said they did not mind the term helper and argued that it did not need to have negative connotations. However, the HK Helper Campaign report noted that those who preferred helper all reported having good experiences with their employers.

(The report also noted that HK Helper Campaign, like other domestic worker advocacy groups in the city, still used the term helper in their name because it was more recognizable.)

While the Hong Kong government might argue that it is committed to protecting its domestic helpers, the law shows that it is more committed to making sure they remain second-class citizens. In February, for example, the HK High Court ruled against a Filipino domestic worker’s challenge to a law requiring all helpers to live with their employers.


Activists argue that the live-in rule makes domestic workers far more vulnerable to abuse, overwork, and being forced into inhumane living conditions. Reports of HK domestic workers being forced to sleep in closets, cubbyholes and bathrooms are numerous and disturbing.

The high court’s decision also went against the advice of HK District Court judge Amanda Woodcock, who convicted the employer of Indonesian domestic worker Erwiana Sulistyaningsih for horribly abusing her in 2015.


Judge Woodcock suggested the live-in rule helped allow Erwiana’s abuse to happen and argued that is should be scrapped. “A choice would make all the difference and may lead to a decline in the number of such cases,” she said in her verdict.

The HK government argues that the live-in rule is needed to prevent domestic workers from taking on employment beyond that sanctioned by their visas (and away from locals, though it was never proven that they had ever had any significant impact on the domestic labor market).

But it also conveniently means that domestic workers in HK cannot be considered “ordinary residents” under the city’s law and thus eligible for permanent residency after seven years, unlike every other kind of expatriate worker.

Singapore, which also has a similar live-in rule, uses the term domestic worker in governmental regulations but specifies that foreign domestic workers (FDW) are not covered under the country’s Employment Act, which protects the rights of most other expatriate workers in the country. And unlike in Hong Kong, FDWs are not guaranteed a certain minimum wage and governmental guidelines specify only that they be given a “reasonable” workload.


A recent study by independent consultancy group Research Without Borders found that 60 percent of domestic workers in Singapore said they were exploited by their employers, including receiving low pay, little time off work and verbal and physical abuse.

At least 90 percent of those surveyed reported working excessive hours, with 84 percent saying they worked more than 12 hours a day and 41 percent said they were forced to work on their sole mandated rest day.

Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said in a statement that the survey was misleading and used an “overly simplistic interpretation” of the ILO’s indicators of labor exploitation.

“The study did not consider the unique nature of domestic work when interpreting the indicators,” the ministry argued. “For example, it defined FDWs’ working hours without taking into consideration the fact that work and personal time in the context of domestic work cannot be easily differentiated.”

Of course work time and personal cannot be easily differentiated when domestic workers are required to live with their employers! The “unique nature” of domestic work in Singapore is that domestic workers are denied the right to live outside their employers home, unlike every other kind of worker.

Another Singaporean law on foreign labor, clearly aimed at domestic workers, prevents them from marrying Singaporean citizens or permanent residents in or outside Singapore without approval from the country’s ministry of manpower. They are also not allowed to get pregnant or deliver a child in Singapore while their work permit is active.

Similar restrictions regarding marriage and pregnancy were required of female servants in Victorian England. Young women in the employ of wealthy families were required to remain maidens (i.e. unmarried), so that they would not be distracted from their duties, or risk immediate termination.

That is, of course, where the term maid comes from.


Why being a “worker” matters

Take Indonesia, where the word pembantu (which directly translates to helper) is still the most commonly used term for domestic workers in both casual conversation and the media, having replaced uglier words like babu (a derogatory term with similar connotations to maid or servant) that have, mostly, been relegated to the past.


It is estimated that about 10 million Indonesian citizens are employed as domestic workers and the country is one of the world’s largest suppliers of overseas domestic workers. The government, to its credit, has eliminated the official use of the term pembantu rumah tangga (domestic helper) in favor of pekerja rumah tangga (domestic worker), because, as Manpower Minister M Hanif Dhakiri said in 2015, “the term ‘pembantu’ is considered to place someone in a certain social class whose rights can be ignored.”


Eliminating official use of the term pembantu is part of the Indonesian government’s broader efforts to provide greater protections to its citizens employed as domestic workers employed in countries like Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia, where reports about their abuse are depressingly common (Indonesia banned domestic workers from legally being able to go to the Middle East in 2015 after far too many stories of horrifying exploitation, though many still go illegally in desperate search of employment).


But even as it fights for their rights abroad, the Indonesian government has denied domestic workers within Indonesia many of those very same protections.

That’s because domestic workers are not officially classified as “workers” under the Indonesia’s domestic employment laws, specifically the 2003 Manpower Act.

Under Indonesian law, domestic workers are considered part of the informal economy. Their employers are not required to create contracts clearly defining their work and guaranteeing their payment, working hours, rest and leave periods, standards on termination of employment, nor any of the other basic legal protections afforded “formal” workers such as a guaranteed livable minimum wage. When their basic rights are denied, such as in the event of employer non-payment, domestic workers within Indonesia have little legal basis on which to fight back.


A bill that could fix this situation, RUU Pekerja Rumah Perlindungan Pekerja Rumah Tangga (Draft Law on the Protection of Domestic Workers) was first drafted in 2004 but has languished in in Indonesia’s House of Representative ever since. Despite the urging of groups like the International Labor Organization, Amnesty International and domestic worker advocacy groups such as Jala PRT, the political will necessary to have pembantu formally recognized as workers does not yet exist in Indonesia.

So while the Indonesian government has acknowledged that the term pembantu tends to put domestic workers in “a certain social class whose rights can be ignored,” it continues to ignore domestic workers who are demanding that their rights be recognized.

How can the Indonesian government expect countries like Singapore and Hong Kong to afford Indonesian domestic workers the same protections as other types of workers when it is unwilling to give them those same protections within their own country?

In the Philippines, the situation is a little better in that their government passed a similar bill in 2013, called Batas Kasambahay (Domestic Worker Act) that protects their rights to a minimum wage, health benefits, a daily rest period of 8 hours per day and one day off weekly.

But many say that law has not been effective due to a lack of awareness about the rights of kasambahay as well as employers who are still willing to exploit their katulong (helper) despite the law. Another complicating factor is the Filipino tradition of utang na loob (“debt of gratitude”) that has normalized the idea of people working as a domestic worker for their relatives, an employment arrangement that is often abused due to its informal nature.

Changing our words, changing our worldview

I realize that all of these issues are incredibly complicated, touching not just upon human rights but also deeply entrenched notions of local culture and tradition. Simply changing the words we use to describe domestic workers, on its own, cannot change anything.

Domestic worker activists are fighting for change, fighting to be recognized as more than helpers and maids, every day and on multiple fronts. They struggle so that they and their sisters may have the same rights the rest of us take for granted, and often their activism is done in their precious rare moments of free time after long days or weeks or exhausting work.


As talented, hardworking and inspiring as these activists are, they cannot win this battle alone. Most of their fellow domestic workers feel they are not in a position to bargain for better protections and more rights. They desperately need work — almost always to provide a better life for their families — and many of them take on these jobs knowing full well the risks involved because they feel there are no better choices available to them.     

And that is the crux of the matter. As long as the people with power over them — government officials, employers and agents — know there are people desperate enough to take on these jobs, no matter how bad the circumstances may be, the impulse to exploit them will remain strong.

So it is up to those of us who have the luxury of choice and opportunity, those of us who stand to benefit the most from the exploitation of our most vulnerable, to stand up with them and say: “No, this is unacceptable. They are not servants. They are not maids. They are not helpers. They are workers and they are human beings and we demand that they get the same protections as any other kind of worker — the same protections any of us would want if we were in their situation.”

Changing the words we use is just one small part of making that message heard, but I believe an essential one. Words shape our reality and change the way we see the world. What kind of world do you want to live in?

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