Understanding Gender and Reproductive Labor through the Pandemic

Shui-yin Sharon Yam
Associate Professor of Writing, Rhetoric,
and Digital Studies at the University of Kentucky

While the number of new confirmed Covid cases has dwindled significantly in Hong Kong, the pandemic has illuminated and intensified existing social issues and structural inequities that we cannot ignore—for instance, gender inequity and gender-based exploitation and violence. School closures has likely inadvertently added to the workload of many Hong Kong women, who tend to the primary caregivers to elderly and children. For women who have a job and are currently working from home, that means juggling parenting and professional duties all at once—often inside a small apartment with little room for privacy.

Due to the lack of public support and acknowledgement for caregiving, Hongkongers have been relying on the labor of migrant domestic workers since the 1980s. The discrimination and labor exploitation domestic workers face have been rampant even prior to the pandemic. Since pandemics tend to intensify existing inequities and marginalization, domestic workers have been bearing the brunt of it: many are not allowed to go out and enjoy their once-a-week vacation, and hence are forced to work additional hours without proper compensations.

At its height, the pandemic has taken away Hong Kong women and domestic workers’ opportunities to leave their home to socialize and seek support from others. As a result, for both groups of women—and more so for domestic workers whose immigration status renders them alien—their home is not a place of refuge: rather, it is a place that demands thankless labor, and exemplifies gender inequity in reproductive labor. While the public’s attention has always been focused on economic growth in terms of GDP, wages, and formal employments, we cannot overlook the reproductive labor that undergird the productive workforce.

Reproductive Labor and Care Work

The concept of reproductive labor is key to understanding how women are commonly exploited in everyday lives. Developed in the 1970s by feminist activists like Mariaosa Della Costa, Wally Seccombe, and Jeanne Boydston, reproductive labor refers to the largely unpaid and invisible labor women do at home, such as childcare, cooking, and household chores. Reproductive labor helps sustain and reproduce bodies that make up the productive work force: namely, men whose jobs are more widely recognized as important to the economy and are compensated more fairly. Productivity in the paid labor market, in other words, is made possible by the invisible and underacknowledged work that women perform in domestic spaces.

While women’s participation in the productive labor market has increased over the years, the gender division of labor remains: women, even while they are gainfully employed, are still responsible for most of household responsibilities when they get home from work. American anthropologist Arlie Hochschild refers to this as the “second shift” many working women are forced to take on without any proper recognition and financial compensation. In addition to chores and parenting, many women in the working class also work as the primary caregiver for their sick or aging loved ones because they cannot afford private care, nor does the government provide sufficient public support. 

The hierarchy between productive and reproductive labor does not only intensify gender inequity, but as sociologist Mignon Duffy points out, it also further entrenches racism: across the globe and in Hong Kong, racially and/or ethnically marginalized women are disproportionately performing reproductive labor. Hence, in order to interrogate how the pandemic has magnified existing gender inequity in labor, we must adopt an intersectional lens to examine the ways in which gender and race connects to marginalize some people more than others.

Migrant Domestic Workers

In the 70s, Hong Kong experienced an economic boom through its exports. This drastic economic growth created a growing middle class and led to a higher demand for skilled labor. As educated Hong Kong women were incentivized to join the productive labor market, the colonial government began recruiting migrant women from poorer Southeast Asian countries to serve as live-in domestic workers. The number of domestic workers grows almost every year—currently, there are approximately 400,000 domestic workers, mostly from the Philippines and Indonesia, working and residing in Hong Kong.

Because of the affordability of migrant domestic workers, reproductive labor in many middle-class Hong Kong homes has since been outsourced. The current minimum wage for a full-time, live-in domestic worker is a little lower than $5,000, which is significantly more affordable than private childcare, housecleaning, and elderly care combined. By privatizing care work and outsourcing reproductive labor to migrant women from poorer countries, the Hong Kong government is able to skimp on providing sufficient public support and welfare.[1]

Because of their race, gender, and immigration status, migrant domestic workers are multiply marginalized in Hong Kong. Research has repeatedly shown that because of their precarious status and the government’s mandatory live-in policy, domestic workers are vulnerable to labor exploitation and abuse. While the horrific abuse of Indonesia worker Erwiana Sulistyaningsih has made international news, many other cases of exploitation and violence remain unchecked. During the coronavirus outbreak, the discrimination and exploitation domestic workers experienced have only intensified.

At the height of the outbreak, the Hong Kong government urged domestic workers to remain home even on their weekly day-off. While this appeared to be a sound public health recommendation, domestic workers do not have a home in Hong Kong outside of their workplace. While the government stated that employers were not allowed to force their workers to labor on their rest day, many did so anyway—some without compensating their workers appropriately, and some threatened to fire them if they refused to forego their rest day. Some workers complained that they have not been given proper protective gear and sanitization products despite their employers’ repeated demands for them to clean.

The emotional and mental stress on domestic workers is compounded when their employers now work from home due to the pandemic. Pilipino domestic worker Ris explains, since the pandemic, she has had to repeatedly deep-clean the apartment per the order of her female employer. In addition, she now has to be particularly mindful of her actions because her male employer—a finance executive—now works from home and does not want to be interrupted by her cleaning. Ris’s experience echoes what researcher Eileen Lagman has found through her interviews: migrant domestic workers do not only perform household chores, but they also perform invisible care work by carefully monitoring and catering to the emotions of their employers.

Because Hong Kong women are typically responsible for household orders, including the management of their domestic worker, the pandemic has added stress to both groups of women. As sociologist Annie Chan observes, the current labor arrangement pitches women against women, resulting in two losers: neither can feel fully at ease at home because of their respective burden of reproductive labor and the uneven power dynamics in the household. While this tension in the domestic sphere is not new, the pandemic has magnified and highlighted the ways in which undervalued reproductive labor, race, and gender intersect to further marginalize migrant domestic workers. The current situation highlights the pressing need for us as a society to recognize, respect, and fairly compensate for the reproductive labor women, especially racialized women, perform.

Stay-at-Home Mothers and Homeschooling

The devaluing of reproductive labor and care work affects not only migrant domestic workers, but also local Hong Kong women who are often expected to manage the households and perform caretaking duties. As schools move to online learning during the pandemic, many parents also find themselves unprepared to homeschool their children.

While this reality affects parents of all genders, it most disproportionately affects women. Before and especially during the pandemic, the burden of care work, parenting, and now homeschooling has always fallen on the shoulders of women, even though they may also have a full-time job that they now need to do from home. A study has shown that since people started working from home, each of their workday has lengthened on average by three hours. Since women are often expected to perform reproductive labor when they are physically at home, one can surmise that during the pandemics stay-home order, women are working even longer hours than the study indicates.

RTHK’s Hong Kong Connection recently aired an episode focusing on three families who are navigating homeschooling for their neurodivergent children. Because the families no longer have access to the support of professionals such as teachers, speech language pathologists, and physical therapists, the parents experience great difficulties in designing and executing feasible new routines that would help their children grow, or at least, not regress. In all three cases, the mother is the primary caretaker, and hence bears the brunt of the children’s daily frustration.

The episode shows the three mothers creatively and actively coming up with a variety of activities, routines, and emotional management strategies to help their children thrive while schools are closed. In one case, the mother has a full-time job she has to do from home; yet, she still needs to dedicate the majority of her time and energy to help her autistic son manage his emotions and behaviors. While the episode features only three families and hence is in no way representative of the entire city, it nevertheless highlights the workload women have to shoulder in terms of parenting and caregiving.

In addition to critically reconsidering and revising the labor conditions of migrant domestic workers, we also need to interrogate cultural assumptions, ideologies, and economic practices that devalue reproductive labor, while expecting women to shoulder most of the responsibilities to sustain a healthy household. 

Conclusion

The pandemic has simultaneously illuminated the marginalization migrant domestic workers face and the uneven workload local Hong Kong women take on as they perform the bulk of the reproductive labor and care work. Even though the pandemic in Hong Kong is now under control, we can draw on this moment to cultivate coalitions and solidarity between migrant domestic workers and local Hong Kong women. The current labor and economic framework has entrapped migrant domestic workers and their female employers in a tense and unsustainable relationship with one another. Despite their class and ethnic differences, the two groups have much to gain from forming alliances with one another as they are both affected by the gender division of labor and the systemic undervaluing of care work that is crucial in making our home and world livable.

In order to redress gender inequity in both the domestic and public spheres, we need to revise existing preconceptions that disvalue reproductive labor, and render invisible the valuable work women do every day to sustain the workforce. Rather than continuing to privatize and outsource reproductive labor to migrant women, Hong Kong needs a more robust and well-funded public infrastructure to support families and individuals that require caregiving.


[1] Mei-Chi So’s Migrant Domestic Workers: Strangers at Home and Chapter 3 of my book Inconvenient Strangers: Transnational Subjects and the Politics of Citizenship both explorethis history and tension in greater details.

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