How Should Employers Treat Domestic Workers?[1]

11. Oct 2009

Daniel A. Bell (Tsinghua University, Beijing)


            About ten years ago, a close friend came to visit me in Hong Kong. This friend – now director of a center for ethics at a prestigious American university – seemed a bit surprised when informed that my family had hired a live-in domestic helper to help care for our child and deal with domestic chores. He had just arrived from another trip, and since he was going to stay with us for a few days I told him to put his dirty clothes in the laundry basket and our helper would take care of it. But my friend objected, saying he would do it himself. I didn’t argue at the time, but after a few drinks I mentioned it again and he relented.[1]

            Why would he object, I wonder? In Hong Kong, it’s common for professional families to hire foreign domestic workers (the politically correct term). The workers come to make money for themselves and their families, they are given contracts on much better terms than countries like Singapore, their interests are represented by NGOs and their home governments (especially the Philippines) and they are free to go home when they wish. In Hong Kong, nobody thinks twice about the justice of hiring foreign domestic workers (the debate focuses on the terms of their work). But somehow it offends the sensibilities of Western liberals. Perhaps the idea of workers in the home violates the image of the family as a sphere of love and affection. Or maybe it conjures up of images of master-servant relationships from aristocratic times. There may be an element of hypocrisy – in Western countries, domestic work is often done informally or illegally by migrant workers, without contracts and without political recognition and legal protection – but few card-carrying liberals would want to admit that they hire migrant domestic workers, much less defend the practice in public.

            It doesn’t take too long to figure out that such attitudes, if taken seriously, can be damaging to domestic workers themselves. What if my friend had done the laundry himself, and showed himself better at washing clothes than our helper? How would she feel? She might have “lost face,” and perhaps even felt that her job had been threatened. I do not mean to imply that the status quo is perfect. Quite the opposite. It can and should be improved. But we need to think of improving the status quo in ways that benefit the workers themselves – and yes, in ways, that also benefit those hiring the workers. There is obviously a tension between the interests of the two groups, but any workable policy is likely to be based on converging interests to an important extent. And it’s not just a matter of figuring out the right laws and policies. So much interaction between employers and domestic workers occurs in the privacy of the home, away from the prying eyes of the state, and the informal norms of engagement within the home have great impact on the welfare of the workers. But one searches in vain within the academic literature on migration and domestic work for morally-informed proposals regarding the treatment of domestic workers, as though it’s immoral even to allude to that possibility. So let me begin with that topic. Yes, I confess, qua employer, part of what I’m doing is to meant to make myself feel better. The vulgar Marxist might write off my views simply on account of my class position. But Marx himself set the model for transcending class position – with material support from Engels’ capitalist factories, he wrote the most powerful critique of capitalism in history.[2] Of course, my own modest abilities cannot compare to those of Karl Marx. Still, I hope the reader will be willing to engage with my argument. In my view, the Confucian tradition offers moral resources for thinking about the relationship between employer and domestic worker and I will try to spell those out. For what it’s worth, my views are also informed by interviews with domestic workers in Hong Kong and Beijing and volunteer work I did with a Hong Kong-based NGO that represents the interests of foreign domestic workers.


The Personal Is the Political 

             A basic assumption of Confucian ethics is that the moral life is possible only in the context of particularistic personal ties. For the general population, the most important relationship by far is the family. It is by fulfilling our responsibilities to family members that we learn about and practice morality. The value of caring for children is widely shared in other cultures, but Confucianism places special emphasis on filial piety, the care for elderly parents. Moreover, filial piety is not simply a matter of providing material comfort. As Confucius put it, “It is the attitude that matters. If young people merely offer their services when there is work to do, or let their elders drink and eat when there is wine and food, how could this be [sufficient for] filial piety?” (2.8). We need to serve our parents with love. Confucius also says that the way we interact with family members contributes to society at large (in contrast to the Greek thinkers writing at the same time, for whom the good life lies outside the home): “Exemplary persons focus their duties on the root. Once the root is established, the Way will flow from it. As for filial and fraternal responsibility, it is the root of humanity and compassion” (1.2). If there is harmony in the family, in other words, it is easier to establish harmony in society at large.

            These Confucian values still inform people’s beliefs and practices in contemporary East Asian societies. In Japan and South Korea, the duty to care for needy family members – children, elderly parents, the sick, and the disabled – is typically carried out by adult females. Wives are expected to stop working and commit themselves to the family after marriage. But Chinese societies (especially in urban areas) are relatively egalitarian in terms of gender relations (compared to Japan and South Korea) and women often work outside the home. So who should take care of needy family members? Not surprisingly, day-care and nursing-home systems are relatively undeveloped, even in wealthy Chinese cities. People worry that strangers entrusted with caring duties won’t show the right “attitude,” hence the reluctance to commit one’s children and elderly parents to state (or private) institutions. It’s much better to do it oneself, and if that’s not possible, to hire somebody to provide more personal care in the home. So families with the means to do so often hire domestic workers to help with caring duties. In mainland Chinese cities, middle and upper classes often hire migrant workers from the impoverished countryside, and in Hong Kong, they hire foreign migrant workers from the Philippines, Indonesia, and other relatively poor Southeast Asian countries.

            Of course, one cannot easily disentangle cultural explanations from other factors such as political decisions and economic forces. For example, the preference for foreign domestic workers may be explained by the lack of quality day care in Hong Kong (on the other hand, the lack of public demand for day care, even in East Asian societies with open political systems and vibrant civil societies, is quite striking, and cultural biases against day care may be part of the explanation for the lack of demand). The role of Confucian values may be more evident in the way people actually deal with each other within the home. According to one study, Western employers in Hong Kong generally treat domestic workers differently than Chinese employers. Filipina domestic workers were more satisfied with their Western employers, who allow them more personal space and are more likely to treat them on equal terms. Respect also seems to be more important for the Western employer (Tak Kin Cheung an
d Bong Ho Mok, Social Justice Research, vol. 2, no. 2, 1998).

            Respect per se, however, may not be sufficient. That is, the very best employers – only a small minority – treat domestic workers with more than respect; they also treat them as valued members of the family. Most of these employers tend to be Chinese. The same study provides a good example of family-like treatment by a Chinese employer. A Filipina domestic worker valued her employer’s parents because she was treated as the daughter they never had. The ties between the employee and the employer’s family was based on mutual concern and caring, not simply fairness and respect: they watched TV together, engaged in mutual teasing, and the employer showed sincere concern for the domestic worker’s family in the Philippines. My own interviews with domestic workers revealed similar reactions. One domestic worker praised her former boss in Singapore for her use of affectionate family-like appellations and for including her in weekend family outings. Another domestic worker was made the godmother of her employer’s child, and they would go to church together. Her family in the Philippines made regular visits to her employer’s home in Hong Kong, and she hoped that her employer’s family would visit her in the Philippines when she returned.

            Of course, Western employers can also treat domestic workers as family members, but this is relatively rare. The Hong Kong study found that Western employers were more homogenous as a group compared to Chinese employers. My own interviewees said that Western employers often treat domestic workers with respect and tend to be fair-minded, but it typically doesn’t go beyond that (an important reason may be that expatriates do not expect to stay too long and thus do not develop family-like bonds with domestic workers). Good treatment means paying beyond the minimum wage and giving more free time to employees, but the affective component may not be as prominent. Such distance has its advantages. The idea that the domestic worker belongs to the family can be used as an excuse to impose extra burdens on the worker, such as asking her to work during public holidays. This may help to explain why some domestic workers in Hong Kong will refuse to address employers by the given names, even if they are asked to do so, preferring such labels as “Sir” and “Ma’am.”

            Still, the feeling of being treated as a valued member of the family – of feeling loved and trusted – usually outweighs the cost. Once again, it is difficult to directly trace the influence of culture, but it is not unreasonable to suggest that Confucian ethics makes this kind of family-like treatment more likely, or at least more deeply entrenched when it happens. In Confucianism, there is a firm distinction between family insiders and nonfamily outsiders, but the concept of family is relatively flexible and family-like concern and care is supposed to be extended to others. Mencius explicitly asks us to “treat the aged of our own family in a manner befitting their venerable age and extend this treatment to the aged of other families; treat our own young in a manner befitting in a manner befitting their tender age and extend this treatment of the young of other families” (3A.5). One mechanism for extending such relationships is to apply family-like labels and norms to nonfamily members. This is reflected in the Chinese language. Good friends and alumni will refer to each other as younger or older siblings, the graduate supervisor refers to his or her students as younger siblings,[3] and – in the best cases – domestic workers and their employers will also use family-like language to refer to each other.

            But why are the “best cases” not more common in Chinese families? Sometimes, it’s because of different languages and cultures. It’s harder to forge family-like bonds with workers that speak foreign languages. In Hong Kong, many Cantonese-speaking households do not speak English well enough to converse with their English-speaking Filipina domestic workers. Yes, the employers know enough English to issue commands, but affective relationships take place when people can joke and tease each other, which requires relatively advanced language skills. Why don’t the employers hire Chinese-speaking workers? In wealthy Hong Kong, few people are willing to take such jobs. More surprisingly, it’s illegal to hire domestic workers from mainland China! The government fears that such workers would find it easier to blend in and thus overstay as illegals without being caught, but if the aim is to increase the likelihood of extension of family-like norms to domestic workers then the government might want to consider modifying that policy.

In mainland China, due to common language and culture, it may be more common for domestic workers to be treated like members of the family. But there is still a large gap between the ideal and the reality. The main problem is that city folk often look down on less well-educated workers from the countryside. Here too, the government can help to remedy the problem by such means such as TV programming designed to increase consciousness about the need to treat domestic workers well. Consider, for example, the fact that the television program on the eve of the Spring Festival draws an audience of roughly 500 million people. This program consists of songs and skits that convey moral messages in humorous ways (for example, one skit in the 2005 show portrayed a migrant worker who complained that his wages were not being paid on time, and the audience clapped loudly in sympathy). In future programming, perhaps one skit can depict the importance of promoting family-like relations between employers and migrant domestic workers (e.g., a humorous skit depicting employers and domestic workers teasing each other at mealtime) and refraining from abuse of the latter.

            Ultimately, however, such treatment has to involve the employer’s own volition. The whole idea of “enforcing” care may be incoherent: it has to come from the heart, otherwise it will be perceived as insincere and won’t be effective at strengthening affective relationships. How can employers be persuaded to show more care to domestic workers? The argument from self-interest should be evident: if the worker feels cared for and loved, then she will supply higher quality care (in Confucian terms, she will perform her duties with the right “attitude”).[4] It’s also worth appealing to the employer’s better, other-regarding side: the extension of family-like norms promotes the well-being of the workers. Even if the employer has the right motivation, however, such extension of family-like norms to domestic workers may require active effort. They can be extended through common rituals, like eating together. So the employer can try to invite the domestic worker to dine with his or her family. The worker might resist at first, but the employer should persist in the hope that the worker will eventually join the family, eating and conversing at mealtime without being too self-conscious about it. In the Confucian spirit, the employer can also encourage joint singing as a way of generating a sense of solidarity. Again, it might seem a bit forced at first, but eventually both parties may enjoy doing it. If employer and employee do karaoke together to enjoy themselves, we can be confident that family-like norms have been extended!

The liberal may worry about the trade-off between care and rights. As Bridget Anderson puts it, “the difficulty from the migrant workers’ point of view is that such relationships of kindness and gratitude leave little space for rights” (“A very private business,” Centre on Migration, Policy and Society, Working Paper No. 28, 2006, 19).  Just as it seems distasteful (and often unnecessary) to assert rights in families governed by love and affection, so the employer seeking to promote affectiv
e ties might object to rights in the context of family-like relationships between employer and domestic worker, with the consequence that workers are more open to exploitation and abuse. In actual fact, employers have often misused the rhetoric of family harmony to argue against legislation that benefits workers. Consider the following rhetoric from the director of the Mitsubishi Shipyard in Nagasaki in 1910, arguing against a factory law that would strengthen workers’ rights:

Since ancient times, Japan has possessed the beautiful custom of master-servant relations based firmly on a spirit of sacrifice and compassion, a custom not seen in the many other countries of the world. Even with the recent progress in transportation, the development of ideas about rights, the expansion of markets, and the growing scale of industrial society, this master-servant relationship persists securely. Is it not weak like that of the Western nations but has its roots in our family system and will persist as long as that system exists. Because of this relationship the employer loves the employee and the employee respects his master…. Today, there exist no evils and we feel no necessity [for a factory law]. We cannot agree to something that will destroy the beautiful custom of master-servant relations and wreak havoc on our industrial peace (quoted in Upham, “The Japanese Experience with ‘Harmony’ and Law,” paper on file with author).

One suspects that the workers did not share such views. We can and should be suspicious of such rhetoric. Employers themselves, if they have any conscience, should try to think from the employee’s point of view and do things that employees actually care about, like paying above the minimum wage and giving them time off, whatever the impact on the development of family-like ties. Sometimes employers even need to override the worker’s desire to promote relationships based on care. I need to be very careful about drawing on my own experience qua boss – I’m fully aware that it doesn’t “smell” good – but let me go ahead with an example to illustrate what I mean. Once, I asked the son of our domestic worker in Beijing to help fix my computer. He came after work and eventually solved the problem, but he left before I had a chance to give him any money. The next day, I offered the money to his mother, but she refused, explaining that Westerners and Chinese are different: Westerners want to marketize everything but Chinese value relationships based on care and emotion. My immediate instinct was to defend Western civilization, but I resisted the urge. Instead, I told our domestic worker that it would be awkward for me to ask her son for help in the future if she doesn’t accept money on his behalf.[5]

Still, misuses of the rhetoric of family values should not undermine the whole ideal of promoting family-like ties between employer and employee – especially within the household, where employers interact on intimate terms with workers. Obviously it’s better for the worker if the employer treats her with care and affection. And it’s not just employers who say that. The interviewees in Beijing specifically noted that “being treated as a member of the family” is an important desideratum. Moreover, it would be a mistake to assume that there is always a trade-off between the protection of legal rights and family-like affective relations. In some cases, rights can actually promote affective relations. In mainland Chinese cities (unlike Hong Kong), migrant domestic workers typically work without contracts. Standardized Hong Kong-style contracts that set minimum wages and guarantee health and work accident insurance would be beneficial for the domestic workers. Less obviously, such contracts could also help to promote the development of family-like relations within the home. By specifying longer terms of engagement (say, two or three years), domestic workers would be more likely to stick with their employers, thus increasing the likelihood that family-like ties develop between employer and employee. On the other hand, an important advantage for domestic workers under the current, informal system of work is that they can easily change jobs and therefore do not have to put up with abusive employers (in contrast, migrant domestic workers only have two weeks to find new employers in Hong Kong, which means that they often must tolerate bad employers for fear of being deported). So the contract would need to allow for some form of exit, but not to the point that employer and employee do not have any motivation to deal with minor conflicts in family-like ways. Such contracts would also need to be combined with further measures that protect the domestic workers from abuse, such as severe punishments for employers who physically or sexually abuse domestic workers.

But we do need to recognize that excessive rights focus can undermine affective ties between employer and employee. Liberals seem to think that rights designed to promote equal respect and fairness should always have political (and legal) priority over concern for affective ties, but Confucians feel the tension.[6] And sometimes the latter can have priority. For example, one of my interviewees in Hong Kong praised her former Singapore employer for providing shampoo and other toiletries. Such seemingly trivial gestures were deeply appreciated because they went beyond legal obligations, and they strengthened bonds of trust between employer and employee. If the employer had provided toiletries because that obligation had been spelled out in contract form, it would not have had the same beneficial effect on their relationship.

More controversially, such considerations may bear on the issue of whether or not to legislate work hours. In Hong Kong, contracts between employers and domestic workers do not set a maximum number of work hours. There is nothing illegal about making domestic workers work sixteen-hour work days. At first glance, this seems morally suspect. However, one reason for not specifying maximum work hours is that it would be difficult to enforce within the “privacy” of the home and to adjudicate cases of conflict. Another reason matters more for our purposes. The employers can offer to limit work hours to “reasonable’ amounts – say, eight hour days, with breaks in between — and this may have the effect of strengthening affective ties between employers and workers. Conversely, the domestic worker may offer to work beyond agreed-upon hours, and this will also have the effect of stregthening trust and caring relationships within the household. Eventually, the lines between economic activity and family duties may become blurred, and the process of negotiating work between employer and employee will more closely resemble the informal ways of distributing tasks between family members; put differently, it allows for the “Confucian” extension of family-like norms and practices to domestic workers. Such an outcome is less likely to develop if legal contracts specify in great detail the rights and duties of domestic workers within the family context.

The liberal may reply that the proposal not to specify maximum work hours still benefits the employer, who ultimately controls the levers of power. Why should the employer have the right to decide whether or not to exploit the domestic worker? From the perspective of the domestic worker, it might seem preferable to have the right to limited work hours, which can be invoked if need be. If the domestic worker wants to strengthen affective ties with her employer, then she can waive this right, and the employer would be grateful. In practice, unfortunately, this is not likely to happen. Once the right is formalized, there is a strong tendency to invoke it, even against “good” employers where it might not be necessary to do so. Moreover, the fact that this right is so difficult to enforce may lead to endless conflicts that could poison the atmosphere of the household.

My main point – a point that’s neglected or criticized by l
iberal theorists — is that the Confucian concern for extending family-like relations to domestic workers should be taken seriously, both at the level of policy and the way we – bosses – actually deal with them. Ideally, legislators and employers should try to combine this concern with considerations of justice. But it may not always be possible to do so. Legal rights should protect the basic interests of workers, like the right not be abused physically or sexually. But if curbing rights doesn’t lead to severe injustice and helps to promote affective ties, then the concern for the latter should have priority. In hard cases one’s normative position may lead to different conclusions. The liberal individualist may prefer to err on the side of justice, but the Confucian may opt for norms and practices more likely to secure harmony and trust within the family. 


The Economic Benefits of Differentiated Citizenship

            But perhaps I’m missing the real problem. The whole system of migrant labor rests on the fundamental injustice of unequal citizenship: in Hong Kong, for example, foreign domestic workers cannot be put on the road to citizenship no matter how long they work in the territory. In the eyes of liberal theorists, the institutionalization of second-class citizenship – permanent unequal legal rights for a group of residents — is a violation of fundamental liberal-democratic principles and should never be allowed, no matter what the circumstances. As Will Kymlicka puts it, “it violates the very idea of a liberal democracy to have groups of long-term residents who have no right to become citizens” (Contemporary Political Philosophy, p. 359). No decent government will ever compromise on these principles.[7]

            In mainland China, arguably, there’s an even worse injustice because migrant workers are deprived of equal rights within their own country! China’s “floating population” – roughly 120 million migrants, mainly impoverished rural residents migrating to urban areas in search of better opportunities and higher earnings – is subject to the hukou (household registration) system that allows the state to control the extent of migration to urban areas and makes it more difficult for those born in rural areas to establish permanent homes in cities. The hukou is a politically-sanctioned, hereditary distinction between those born in rural and urban areas, and migrants from rural areas must make their presence known in cities and apply for labor permits to work there. Urban household registrants are granted an extra share of rights and entitlements, and migrants are precluded from partaking of those benefits as a result of their rural backgrounds, regardless of how long they have actually lived in urban areas. From a liberal democratic perspective, in other words, the hukou system is the functional equivalent of a caste system that marks a group of people as second-class citizens just because they were unlucky enough to be born in the countryside. 

            It’s worth asking what could possibly motivate what seems like a transparently unjust systems. One way of answering this question is to anticipate the likely social and economic consequences of development with the hukou system. Consider what happened when Tibet – for Han Chinese, the most remote, inhospitable, and hostile part of the country – was exempted from the hukou system: “To encourage economic development in Tibet, Beijing had exempted Tibet from the general rule that one must be a permanent resident of a given area to start a business there. The result was that Tibetan cities, Lhasa in particular, were inundated with a so-called ‘floating population’ of Han Chinese from other provinces” (He, “Minority Rights with Chinese Characteristics,” in Multiculturalism in Asia, eds. Will Kymlick and He Baogang, p. 64). Wu Ming spells out the likely consequences of abolishing the hukou system in more desirable (from a Han Chinese perspective) locations such as Beijing and Shanghai:

    If the urban hukou is abolished, not only will this cause difficulties of technical and human management in cities, there will also be a flood of laborers from the countryside. This will lead to many “urban illnesses,” particularly in developed cities on the East Coast. Perhaps we can say that there are already huge numbers of rural migrants in cities? But there aren’t many “urban illnesses.” That’s because the urban hukou system has not been abolished. The rural migrants don’t have a fixed residence, and their life if like that of migratory birds. Without the hukou system, they would travel in groups, if they could establish their residence [in cities], they would bring their whole families to live in the outskirts of cities and there would be a huge amount of poverty stricken people. Urbanization in Latin America is the best example of this kind of situation (quoted in Xin xi bu, 26 Nov. 2001).

In other words, the hukou system has prevented the emergence of shanty towns and slums that characterize the big cities of other developing countries such as Brazil, Mexico, India, and Indonesia. The benefits for economic development of urban areas are obvious: there is more social peace and less crime, as well as a more welcoming (stable) environment for foreign investors.

            Wu Ming argues that the hukou system also benefits the less-developed parts of the country. The medium-sized and small cities of the less-developed western part of China find it easier to retain the talent that helps to develop their economies (without the hukou system, talent would migrate to cities like Beijing and Shanghai). One might add that the benefits of economic investment in relatively wealthy east coast cities can eventually be redistributed for purposes of developing impoverished regions (the Chinese government has recently announced funding for expensive infrastructure projects in the west).

            There are reasons to question the empirical basis of such claims (see, e.g., Xia Xianliang and Wang Yingxi, Urban Studies, vol. 9(4), 2002). Even if they are correct, however, the liberal would still want to abolish the hukou system because equalcitizenship is the “mother of all values” in contemporary liberal theory. Even if unequal rights help to promote economic development, the system is fundamentally unjust and should be abolished. Here, we have a clash of fundamental values. It’s not just the Chinese Communist Party that says the government should prioritize the right to subsistence over equal civil and political rights. Confucius himself was explicit that the government’s first obligation is to secure the conditions for people’s basic means of subsistence, and only then should they be educated (13.9). In the same vein, Mencius argued that the government must first provide for the people’s basic means of subsistence so that they won’t go morally astray: “The people will not have dependable feelings if they are without dependable means of support. Lacking dependable means of support, they will go astray and fall into excesses, stopping at nothing” (1A.7). In the West, theorists only began to worry about the state’s responsibility to alleviate poverty in the eighteenth century,[8] whereas such concerns have long informed Chinese thinking and practice. The idea that certain rights can be sacrificed for the sake of enriching the people is not nearly so controversial in China. If there’s a conflict with liberal-democratic theory, the problem may lie with liberal-democratic theory. At the very least, liberals should be cautious about lecturing the Chinese about the requirements of “universal” justice.  

            But there is one feature of the unequal rights system that should be of special concern to Confucians: the fact that migrants are often forced to be separated from family members. In the case of mai
nland China, migrants need to pay extra school fees if they take children with them to cities and they often leave kids behind as a result. The official newspaper China Daily (29 Jan.2007) reports that more than 20 million Chinese children are living with grandparents or other relations after their parents left home to find work (typically, the parents return home only once a year, during the Chinese New Year). In Hong Kong, the effects of foreign migration on family life are even worse. Foreign domestic workers cannot bring family members, and they are forced to come alone, without their spouses or children.

            It’s worth asking why such seemingly inhumane laws are put in place. The main reason is that labor-receiving territories do not want permanent settlement by poor migrant workers and they feel that extending equal rights to the families of migrants will encourage settlement. These views are not likely to change in the foreseeable future. Most Hong Kongers, for example, fear of being flooded with poor migrants from abroad. Hong Kong is already the most crowded territory in Asia, and the last thing Hong Kongers want is massive migration by poor foreign workers and their families (even Chinese mainlanders have a hard time bringing family members to Hong Kong, though it’s technically the same country). It’s worth asking what would happen if liberal theorists succeeded in persuading the Hong Kong government to change its policy. The result would almost certainly harm foreign domestic workers. Pressured by the people, the Hong Kong government would prevent new arrivals from coming to Hong Kong, thus depriving poor foreigners of work opportunities. The current batch of foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong – 232, 780 at the latest count (12 March 2007) – may also be expelled. Many domestic helpers would be forced on airplanes, kicking and screaming, and shipped back to the Philippines and other sending countries. And many children in Hong Kong, having grown attached to their helpers, would cry themselves to sleep for a few nights.  Last but not least, remittances to sending countries from Hong Kong would dry up and global poverty would likely worsen.[9]

            How does one respond to such scenarios? Over the last century of so, Western liberals have discovered the value of family ties for the good life (in comparison, it has been the central theme of Confucianism for well over two millenia), and they seek to use the language of fundamental rights to secure this value. Joseph Carens, for example, writes that “denying people the right to have their families with them for more than three months would be harsh and for more than a year would be unconscionable” (“Live-In Domestics, Seasonal Workers, Foreign Students, and Others Hard to Locate on the Map of Democracy,” p. 7; paper on file with author). Such basic rights trump all other considerations. Even if migrant worker programs are best able to reduce global poverty,[10] the liberal theorist cannot bend such principles. For the Confucian, however, the task is to balance different values. On the one hand, the government has an obligation to alleviate poverty and it will be prepared to consider curbing some rights if necessary to achieve this end. On the other hand, the government also has an obligation to protect and promote family values. But note that the Confucian has a different conception of family values. For the Western liberal, the family typically refers to the nuclear family, meaning spouses and their children. Hence being deprived of such relations is to be entirely deprived of family ties. For the Confucian, the concept of the family is broader, it can and should be extended to others. Most obviously, it includes the relationship to elderly parents. But it can also refer to “new” family members, once family norms and labels are extended to them. Hence the importance of promoting family-like ties between the employer and the domestic worker. To an important extent, such ties can alleviate some of the loneliness caused by separation from family members for migrant workers.

    I do not mean to imply that such ties can replace family ties in home countries (or rural areas, in< the case of migrant workers in mainland China). Mencius, for one, explicitly warns against

confusing extension of family-like norms with the Mohist doctrine of impartial concern for all.For Mencius, it’s natural and legitimate for a person to love his brother’s son more than his neighbor’s newborn baby (3A.5). And to treat my neighbor’s father in exactly the same way as I treat my father, as Mozi asks us to do, would amount to a denial of my father (3B.9). So extended family-like norms cannot do all the work. Intimate family members have special value that cannot be replaced. Hence, provisions must also be made for migrant workers to return home on extended stays, at least once a year. In Hong Kong, employers are forced to pay for such visits back home, but employers can do more, say, pay for two trips back home per year. In mainland China, many employers may not have the means to pay for the home visits of their workers, but those who can help should do so (it needn’t be direct help, it can take the form of bonuses during holiday seasons).

            Let me conclude by emphasizing that we are dealing with hard choices in a non-ideal world. These sorts of trade-offs and sacrifices should be tolerated, not celebrated. Ideally, of course, no one would be forced to travel abroad under conditions of unequal rights and deprived of key family relations simply to make a decent living. In the long term, assuming an optimistic scenario, economic necessity will no longer influence what people do. We will have overcome the problem of global poverty and nobody would need to take jobs as migrant workers in faraway lands. Even then, however, different cultural traditions may influence different ways of securing care for needy family members. Consider the issue of caring for elderly parents. In Western liberal societies, one can predict that much, if not most, of the “caring” will take place in nursing homes and home-care by hired caretakers (often working below the minimum wage: see Eileen Boris and Jennifer Klein, “Old Folks at Home, Dissent, Fall 2007). In societies with a Confucian heritage, however, the idea that care of elderly parents should be informed with the right “attitude” – particularized love – means that relatives will do the bulk of the caring.[11] Perhaps the state can provide more resources for at-home care by relatives. Just as important, let us hope that gender relations will equalize and such tasks will be distributed more equally between adult sons and daughters.[12]


[1] This essay draws from my book China’s New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008). I submit this essay for your consideration because discussions with my friend Geir Helgesen suggest that the case for live-in domestic workers may be furthest removed from Danish sensibilities: hence perhaps it can generate a good argument! If you’d like to pursue the argument, kindly send me an email at [email protected].


[1] The same friend came to visit me in Beijing a couple of years ago. My wife, a lawyer at an international law firm, hired a driver because she never learned to drive herself. The driver came to pick up my friend at the airport, but we told him that she (the driver) is our friend. I didn’t mean to lie (actually, it wasn’t really a lie, because we do have friendly ties with our driver), but I worried that my academic friend would raise objections (or make fun of the a
lleged gap between my leftist commitments and my “bourgeois” lifestyle) if I admitted that we now have a helper and a driver.

[2] Marx didn’t write about the politics of domestic work, however. Perhaps the least illustrious episode of his life is the affair he carried out with his domestic helper, leading to the birth of an illegitimate child (and Engels taking it away from him, thus avoiding a family scandal), which may help to explain Marx’s reluctance to confront the topic.

[3] The extension of family-like labels can also be manifested in highly unusual circumstances. On Chinese television, an experienced police detective who specializes in rescuing kidnap victims described his “velvet glove” methods: he talks to the kidnapper, softens him up by calling him “younger brother,” and more often than not the kidnapper eventually relents and gives up. In an American context, the extension of family-like labels takes place, strangely enough, in women’s prisons. Instead of forming gangs (as in male prisons), female prisoners form “families”, with elder women acting as “grandparents”, middle-aged women as “parents,” and younger ones as “children.”

[4] I use the feminine pronoun to refer to domestic workers, because they are usually female. In mainland Chinese cities, however, there are some male domestic workers, especially to help care for disabled and elderly people. The assumption seems to be that such care can require heavy physical labor (e.g., to lift the patient into a bath) that men are typically better able to provide.

[5] She still refused to take the money. I did ask her son for help again, and I gave him the money (for help on both occasions), which he accepted, after some initial protestation.

[6] I do not mean to imply that liberals actually live according to their theory. For example, my dear liberal friend mentioned above is warm and compassionate in everyday life.

[7] Such strict defense of moral principles may be particularly common among liberal political theorists. Left-leaning economists and political activists are often more willing to bend principles and recognize trade-offs among competing values. For example, the Bush administration’s proposal for a guest-worker program – to my mind, one of the few sensible proposals to emerge from that administration – was defended by left-leaning politicians such as Ted Kennedy (the proposal was opposed and was ultimately defeated by conservative forces who worried about granting “amnesty” to illegal immigrants).

[8] For an interesting account of the Western tradition, see Samuel Fleischacker, A Short History of Distributive Justice (Harvard University Press, 2004). Fleischacker argues that Adam Smith (!) first took seriously the idea of the state’s responsibility for alleviating poverty (other theorists, such as Aristotle and Machiavelli, objected to large gaps between rich and poor because they valued political stability, not because they objected to poverty per se; and Christians generally favored private charity as a way of dealing with poverty).

[9] The economic benefits of remittances by migrant foreign workers are substantial. As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon puts it, “last year migrants sent hope 131 billion [English pounds], three times all international aid. In some countries, a third of families rely on these remittances to keep them out of poverty. Across the developing world, remittances underwrite healthcare, education and grassroots entrepreneurship” (The Guardian, 10 July 2007).

[10] The economist Lant Pritchett has argued that giant guest-worker programs – workers would stay three to five years, with no path to citizenship – that put millions of the world’s poorest people to work in its richest economies is best able to combat global poverty. Pritchett assumes that most receiving countries would not allow them to bring families, but he argues that the benefits for global development outweigh the cost. In reply, Jeffrey Sachs says “Let them come as a family? Having tens of millions of men separated from their families in temporary living conditions is hardly going to be conducive to the kind of world we’re aiming to build” (quoted in Jason DeParle, “Should We Globalize Labor Too?”, New York Times Magazine, 10 June 2007). But what if such choices must be made to alleviate global poverty?

[11]Interestingly, this moral outlook still seems to inform the practices of Asian immigrants to other societies. According to the New York Times (11 August 2001), fewer than one in five whites in the US help care or provide financial support for their parents, in-laws or other relatives, compared with 28% of African-Americans, 34% of Hispanic-Americans and 42% of Asian-Americans. Those who provide the most care also feel the most guilt that they are not doing enough. Almost three-quarters of Asian-Americans say they should do more for their parents, compared with two-thirds of Hispanics, slightly more than half the African-Americans and fewer than half the whites.

[12] Greater involvement by adult sons in the care-giving process will be essential in the future because the one child per family policy in China will make it even more challenging to provide at-home care for elderly parents.