Sunday, October 20, 2013

Work and Violence

I’ve never been afraid to go to work.

I’ve held a job in some form or another almost continuously since I was 16. I’ve worked for minimum wage in retail, as a camp counselor, and as a barista; I’ve scrubbed toilets, woken up for the 4 AM Black Friday shift, stayed past 1 AM on school nights, and done various other unpleasant things associated with service industry jobs. These were minor aggravations at best; I wouldn’t say I enjoyed every minute, but they were tasks that came with actually doing the job I was getting paid for.

Many people in the U.S. do much harder work than I’ve ever done for the same (or lower) wages, and most people have much higher stakes than whether they’d be able to afford textbooks next semester. At $7.25/hour, I could earn the daily wage of a foreign domestic worker (who works on average from 6 AM to midnight) in a little more than 2 hours at home.

I’ve been inconvenienced, but I’ve never felt physically threatened for just trying to exist and do my job.

Earlier this week a client came to the mission seeking advice regarding her employer. She’d been harassed, threatened, spit on, poked in the eyes, and told she should “shrivel up and die of hunger.”  Her employer had already told her she would make her life a living hell. She had a detailed diary of each of these assaults as well as audio recordings of some of the threats. I could tell that she was shaking and near tears for most of our conversation. She was terrified of her employer to the extent that she felt it necessary to have a complaint on file in case something happened to her. In these sorts of cases, it becomes a he-said-she-said situation between the worker and the employee, and they’re very difficult to prove without concrete physical evidence.

Despite her fear of being attacked, she was determined to work for at least another month to support her family back home. In Hong Kong, if either party terminates the domestic foreign worker contract without a 30 day notice, they are forced to pay a month’s wages, and her family couldn’t afford to pay back that wage. I admired her determination, but I also felt completely helpless knowing that I was sending someone back into a situation that could easily escalate further.

I wish that this were an isolated case. I wish that I’d been shocked by her story in the ways that I should have been. I wish that I’d known something to say to make her safer in the place where she lives. Unfortunately, her story was not uncommon. In my short time here, I’ve met women who’ve described the terrible abuses they’ve faced in their situations. I’ve seen the bruises on one woman who’d been bitten so hard that half of her arm was purple. I’ve heard audio recordings of a woman being called a “piece of shit” and of loan agencies threatening to kill their families if they didn’t pay money (which was fraudulently lent in the first place). I’ve counseled people who were forced to sleep in bathrooms, hallways, and even on top of the fridge. My coworkers tell me about a woman who’d been branded with a hot iron on her hands because she’d messed up the laundry, and another who’d had cans of food thrown at her head every time her employer was displeased with something. I see women every day who are regarded as less than human for simply trying to better the lives of their families.

For these women, each day is a struggle for survival; the mere act of existing becomes a form of resistance.

I can talk about the statistics surrounding gendered violence all day: about 80% of the roughly 800,000 individuals trafficked each year are women. One in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. Up to 50% of rapes worldwide are committed against girls under 16. The statistics are grim, but from my comfortable chair in the Sewanee library they were just numbers to be discussed as part of a broader discussion on the issues.

Knowing these numbers intellectually and looking into the eyes of someone personally experiencing them are very, very different.

Fortunately, I suppose, these stories aren’t necessarily the norm for Hong Kong. There will always be good employers and bad employers, and many domestic helpers enjoy great relations with the families where they work. To me, that still doesn’t outweigh the minority who live in constant fear of their lives.

I can’t pretend that I can make sense of these things. I’m grateful for my support system here and abroad, and I’m grateful that I have never felt these sorts of threats in my own life. They certainly aren’t exclusive to Hong Kong: domestic violence is still a pervasive worldwide problem, and many, many people work in unsafe conditions in both the U.S. and abroad. I don’t have any answers about this, and it’s quite possible that I’ll never know what happens to the woman I met earlier this week. What I do know is that the fight to end gendered violence is worth it.


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