Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

“I was lucky”: the hidden past of a London housekeeper

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Interesting story by Moni Mohsin in 1843:

Aisha showed up on my doorstep in April 2010. My housekeeper Hana, an Indonesian woman who had worked for me for three years, was leaving to get married, and she recommended her friend as a replacement. From the start, Aisha worked with impressive efficiency. Her ironing was impeccable. Bathrooms sparkled and furniture shone. She oiled squeaky hinges, replaced blown light bulbs and revived wilted plants. And she showed a curiosity about the inner workings of contraptions. She read instruction manuals; she opened up the hoover to diagnose a fault with the suction; she took down the Roman blind to understand why it was listing to one side. Aisha carried out all of this with a reserve that discouraged questions.

Eventually, she shared a few details of her life. She was in her 30s and had an ex-husband, two younger brothers and a son who lived with her parents. She came from a small village in West Java, where people either tilled rice fields or went abroad to find work. I knew from Hana that Aisha had escaped from her previous employers, a Saudi couple, while they were on holiday in London. Unlike many other domestic workers she knew, she hadn’t been held prisoner, kept working all hours or cheated of her wages. She simply felt that she would have a better life in Britain.

In the eight years that she has worked for me, Aisha’s circumstances have been transformed. She arrived virtually penniless, but managed within seven years to save enough to buy two rice fields and construct a house in her village – she oversaw the building over Skype. She signed up for accountancy courses and passed all her exams, including the rigorous Life in the UK test, required by the Home Office for obtaining indefinite leave to remain in Britain. She became a political activist and lobbied for the rights of domestic workers in the House of Lords and the European Parliament. Aisha’s career has been propelled by some of the world’s most powerful social forces – migration, globalisation, the emancipation and empowerment of women.

Though Aisha and I are both migrants, as much divides as unites us. We are both Muslim and come from poor Asian countries – she from Indonesia, I from Pakistan. But I am privileged and educated; she is not. We are also mothers, yet as with so much else, class and wealth has made our experience of motherhood quite distinct.

Aisha had been working for me for eight months when I gave her a month off to return to Indonesia and see her family. She went shopping and came home laden with bulging bags. That afternoon, when I went into my eight-year-old son’s room, I found him in his pyjamas standing with his arms aloft. Aisha knelt on the carpet before him. By her knee lay a pile of T-shirts and trousers. She was measuring each one in turn against him and flushed when she saw me.

“Sorry Madam, I was just trying these clothes on him. My son is same age as yours. But I not see him for four years. So I don’t know how big he grow.”

Two years ago I went with Aisha to Babakan, the village in West Java she came from. My presence created a stir. Though many women from the village had gone abroad to work as domestic workers, none had ever brought an employer home. A posse of excited children escorted us down the dusty main street, pointing at me and shouting, “Look, look! Madam is here! Madam is here!” On either side of the street, houses jostled together like crowded teeth. Many were solidly built, concrete structures, painted in bright colours – apple green, turquoise and purple – and adorned with wood carvings and satellite dishes. Caged birds sang on their neat verandas. Others looked poor and shabby, with broken windows, peeling paint and cracked façades. Almost a quarter were constructed in the old style out of bamboo.

Alleys between the houses were littered with cigarette butts, fruit peel, plastic bags, discarded flip-flops and rusting tricycles. The stream in which Aisha learnt to swim as a child had become a sewer clogged with household waste.

The smarter homes had been financed by the wages of workers who had gone abroad. “From every house,” she said spreading her arms to indicate both sides of the road, “someone go out” – “going out” is shorthand in her village for moving abroad to find work. When I asked her to identify which houses specifically, she sighed with impatience. “I’m telling you. From every house they go.” She worked her way down the street, ticking off the countries: Saudi Arabia, Brunei, Taiwan, Malaysia. “Every house,” she said.

In the 1970s, Babakan was an isolated hamlet. Though the distance from Jakarta was only 130km, the journey by road took six hours. Most villagers were rice farmers, living in houses made of palm and bamboo. They washed in the river and lit their homes with lanterns. The younger generation studied at the village school but no one went to university. Few had even visited the capital.

In the mid-1980s Suharto’s government signed an agreement with Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern governments to export manual labour. A trickle of volunteers soon turned into a flood of manpower pouring out from western Java: men sought work abroad as drivers, cleaners and labourers; women as nannies, cooks and cleaners. By 2016, nearly 5m people legally worked abroad, according to Indonesia’s National Agency for the Placement and Protection of Migrant Workers – some 4% of the labour force. The demand for live-in domestic help propelled the first waves of migration, so women were overwhelmingly preferred to men. Entire villages in West Java were depleted of women between the ages of 20 and 45. In 2009 around 80% of the documented migrant workers were women, though the numbers have begun to equalise as the government has introduced quotas on the number of women going to work in Malaysia and the Middle East.

Salaried domestic work is one of the fastest growing occupations in the service industry globally. According to the International Labour Organisation, the number of domestic workers more than doubled between 1995 and 2015 to 67m. Of these, 11.5m are migrants. The actual figures are probably far higher since the sector is largely informal and invisible.

There are many reasons for the increased demand for hired helpers: rising female employment, the expansion of the middle classes in the developing world and ageing populations in the developed one. Many successful women I know in Britain wouldn’t have been able to forge their careeers without them. Domestic work currently accounts for one in every 13 women employed worldwide. In the last 30 years, millions of Filipino, Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi and Indonesian women like Aisha have left remote villages and travelled to distant places in search of livelihoods. Though they are largely invisible, their stories are extraordinary. They have crossed continents to live among complete strangers with alien customs and unfamiliar tongues. Often they lack any legal protections and rely only on their resilience, courage and ingenuity to survive.

In many senses, those who go out are winners. The remittances they send halfway across the world pay school and college fees, finance farms, fund small businesses, pay for homes, weddings and funerals and boost the foreign-exchange reserves of their own countries. But their achievements come at great personal cost. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

9 August 2018 at 11:21 am

Posted in Business, Daily life

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