Of Culture and Callousness

An Important Account of Domestic Helpers in Hong Kong

la mà de Cromos, by isburlas, with Creative Commons licenceSpeak of culture and others will immediately imagine depth, profundity, an underlying explanation of the way things are. But culture is a notoriously slippery term, often promising more than it delivers. It literally means ‘to grow’, whence comes ‘cultivated’, which we tend to associate with being civilised. That’s hardly a guide to living. But as Clifford Geertz so persuasively argued in his Interpretation of Cultures, the term more properly denotes the way in which meaning is transmitted symbolically through human communication – we speak and act our cultures rather than experience them dumbly. And we do so across time, with cultural change at the epicentre of our lives. So when someone works for 10 years on a doctoral dissertation entitled ‘Culture of Indifference’ and describes the trials and abuse of Filipina domestic helpers in Hong Kong, it’s more than worth listening to the new, counter-cultural voice.

Estelle Kennelly’s ‘Culture of Indifference: Dilemmas of the Filipina Domestic Helpers in Hong Kong’ is available free for download through a Creative Commons licence. Kennelly completed the dissertation in 2007 while a graduate student of social anthropology at St Andrew’s University in Scotland, having conducted extensive fieldwork in Hong Kong from mid-1999 to early 2001, including at migrant women’s shelters. Released online this week, her findings shout what others only whisper – that engrained into Hong Kong society, at the individual, social and judicial levels, is a culture of indifference towards foreign domestic helpers that fosters abuse.

Indifference, by Tahoe Sunsets, with Creative Commons licenceThat abuse – and there is no other word for it – ranges from exploitation through extraordinarily long working hours to verbal, physical and sexual violence, drawing in underpayment, deliberate isolation and the deprivation of freedom. But the situation remains an elephant in the room of Hong Kong life seven years after Kennelly completed her fieldwork because a climate of fear suppresses the capacity of helpers to adequately defend themselves.

So in the grand conversation about development in Hong Kong over the last 30 years as a manufacturing town has become a service-oriented metropolis, those with no voice have been spoken at – shouted at more often; acculturated by indifference that leads to abusive contempt. Kennelly argues that “an employment contract with extraordinarily restrictive terms” lies at the heart of this interplay. From it springs modes of public conversation, including legislation and the judicial process itself, that define the women who have helped the middle class of this city to become increasingly wealthy as insignificant at best, and intolerable at worst.

I am Here for the Learning Revolution, by Wesley Fryer, with Creative Commons licenceKennelly’s dissertation is a very important document. While we frown at news coming out of New York that one employer callously abused her two helpers over much of this decade, those of us in Hong Kong need look no further than our own neighbourhoods to find cases alarmingly similar. During the Enlightenment the French poet Denis Diderot argued that learning meant discovering how to think differently, reading and cogitating then telling someone else that their knowledge was insufficient, not knowledge at all but ignorance. Estelle Kennelly’s dissertation speaks that harsh language to Hong Kong’s studied indifference. Read it and learn.

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