How Housekeepers Unite to Fight for Better Working Conditions

High demand among affluent urban Chinese allows savvy domestic workers to agitate for better pay and benefits.

Zhang Mingyang is a freelance writer and the former chief editor of the Shanghai Review of Books.

In spring, my wife Bing and I welcomed our first child, a daughter. Our lifestyle might be described as comfortably middle-class: Bing works in media and I’m a manager at a successful online business. Between us, we earn at least 400,000 yuan ($60,000) per year, enough to afford our apartment in Shanghai and hire two female housekeepers, Zhang and Li.

Families like ours commonly employ ayi — a term meaning “aunties” but usually referring to middle-aged female housekeepers — so that both my wife and I can work. Zhang comes over for three hours a day, but doesn’t live with us. Loyal and devoted, she has been with us for nearly seven years now, and has other clients as well. We pay her a monthly salary of around 3,000 yuan. Li is our live-in au pair, who we hired soon after my daughter was born. She takes care of the baby six days a week for a monthly salary of 7,500 yuan.

Like many new mothers in China’s cities, my wife went straight back to work after her 98-day maternity leave ended. It is customary in China for grandparents to help with raising children, but we married late and had a baby even later. Given their advanced age, our parents are unable to take care of our daughter.

Admittedly, we don’t exactly know how to take care of ourselves. My generation is notoriously ill-equipped to deal with household upkeep; as children born under the one-child policy, we grew up as the focus of our respective families, and never learned to do basic chores very well. We’d cease to function without the help of housekeepers.

Nowadays, just as work environment in Chinese cities become more intensive, an increasing number of families are choosing to have two children. More and more middle-class families in first- and second-tier cities are turning to housekeepers for help around the home. The market for such services grows bigger with every passing year: According to Tong Xin, a sociology professor at Peking University who specializes in labor issues, the total number of China’s housekeepers, care workers now stands at 35 million, representing an industry worth tens of billions of yuan.

Having employed ayi for several years, I have had to give them an annual pay raise of 10 percent — a rate that more or less keeps pace with my own salary increases, but exceeds my wife’s. Not only that, housekeepers’ salary packages are improving in other ways too.

Let’s look at Li, for example. She earns a monthly salary of 7,500 yuan as a live-in housekeeper and au pair. This money is net income; she doesn’t have to pay for rent, utilities, or food. Neither does she pay individual income tax, as the state tends to turn a blind eye to domestic workers like Li.

In 2016, the four major first-tier cities of China — Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen — all reported average gross monthly salaries of between 6,500 and 7,500 yuan. In other words, housekeepers in those cities enjoy a living standard at least similar to, if not better than, the average city dweller.

Li doesn’t pay tax on her income, but she lacks access to the various social benefits given to white-collar workers, known colloquially as the “five insurances and one deposit” — retirement insurance (pension), medical insurance, unemployment insurance, work injury insurance, maternity insurance, and the housing accumulation funds paid for jointly by employees and their work units.

However, if she continues to work in this industry, Li will have to pay for her own medical care in old age. The career path for housekeepers is a short one: Most are between 40 and 50 years old, as women older than that tend to struggle with the onerous workload of looking after children, keeping the house spotless, and preparing meals for a family. Younger women, meanwhile, often lack experience of childcare and, unfortunately, are usually viewed with suspicion by female employers who fear the infidelity of their husbands.

As an employer, giving my housekeeper an annual, stable pay rise worries me less than an unexpected request for a raise. I worry that if I refuse to pay more, my housekeeper might quit out of anger or resentment. Admittedly, housekeepers do not have official unions, nor do they have the “government referential price” that the Hong Kong government created to tie domestic workers’ salaries to the Minimum Allowable Wage. However, housekeepers have their own ways of improving their working conditions.

Housekeepers’ social networks often revolve around the messaging app WeChat, where so-called hometown groups allow them to stay in touch with friends, family, and neighbors. A housekeeper who is new to a city often relies on these networks to land a job. Once she finds her footing, she starts discussing her salary package with other housekeepers from back home.

In addition, when housekeepers take their employers’ children out to play, they will often flock to the same locations. The kids will go off and play together while their nannies stand to one side, gossiping about their salaries and benefits. These get-togethers give them a clearer picture of the whole neighborhood’s different income levels.

Armed with knowledge of what their peers are earning, housekeepers then confront their employers with higher salary demands. This happened to me recently, when Li told me about the better pay that our neighbor gave their ayi. I could only smile uneasily in response, concerned about what it might mean for my young daughter if Li was to suddenly leave.

The housekeeping industry in China’s major cities is a sellers’ market. Figures provided by 58 Home, a well-known domestic service platform linking housekeepers and employers, show that in Beijing and Shanghai, there is about one housekeeper for every five available positions. This means that employers have little leverage when their domestic help asks for more money.

Sometimes a raise just isn’t enough, though. These days, white-collar families also compete to give their housekeepers the best perks. In first-tier cities, ayi in the park compare their “international travel benefits”: How many countries did your employer take you to this year, so you could look after their kids during the vacation? In a classic “chain of contempt,” those who have traveled to Japan sneer at those who only went to Southeast Asia, while those who traveled to Europe, the United States, or Australia thumb their noses at those who went to Japan.

Bing and I have discussed several times whether one of us would consider quitting their job and becoming a full-time parent if there came a day when our housekeepers’ salaries were more than we could afford. This scenario is not entirely unrealistic: Au pair salaries in Shanghai are already comfortably above the average wage, and housekeepers are heading in the same direction. Bing’s answer changes each time: When she feels especially maternal, she would be willing to sacrifice everything to stay home. When she feels passionate about her work, she is less willing to give up her job, no matter what Zhang and Li earn in comparison to her.

I foresee that in a decade or so, we will see surging numbers of Chinese white-collar women leave their jobs and become housewives in China’s first-tier cities. The model of the double-income family that China has developed in the past decade will be rapidly overturned as it become less affordable to hire domestic help.

The socioeconomic shift involved in bringing so many middle-class adults back into the home will force my generation to become as versatile as our parents were before us. Without a supply of cheap housekeeping, it will finally be time for the likes of Bing and me to learn how to cook a meal, clean the bathroom, and change a light bulb.

Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Zhang Bo and Matthew Walsh.

(Header image: A babysitter holds a baby while its mother looks on in Shanghai, Jan.4, 2015. Shen Chunshen/VCG)

Originally published at on December 10, 2017.




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