Community & Education Domestic Workers Opinion

A harmless deception? When domestic worker bedrooms are disguised as ‘store rooms’

Owing to an accident of economic history, the estate where I live has moved up in the world. Houses which used to sell for 5 or 6 million now command eight-digit prices, and the first digit is not 1. My humble Honda rubs hubcaps with expensive European brands, the odd Tesla, and luxurious Japanese people-carriers.

One of the minor drawbacks of this is that we attract a lot of attention from the real estate industry. It seems that really rich people are in a state of constant wanderlust, so they are prime targets for agents flogging the latest new palace.

Scarcely a week goes by without a glossy brochure dropping through the letter box inviting us to own a piece of the latest “timeless masterpiece” (I am not making this up) offering “exclusive executive living”.

floor plan

Photo: HKFP.

There will be a club house, a pool. There will be tennis courts. There will be space for your three cars.

An odd feature of these plans is that there is usually a little room next to the kitchen, mysteriously labelled “store”. A walk-in pantry? But why, a visitor from Mars might wonder, does it need its own tiny toilet?

We seasoned observers of the Hong Kong scene know what is going on here. The “store”, which is approximately the same size as the lift, is actually going to be the domestic helper’s bedroom. A humane employer will bear this in mind when recruiting, and avoid tall ladies, unless they are willing to sleep standing up, like a horse.

I suppose labelling the helper’s room a store is a harmless deception. Potential buyers will no doubt be told by the agent, if necessary, what the store is for. This is a point real estate vendors like to cover, because of the flattering implication that the potential buyer they are addressing can afford servants.

floor plan

Photo: HKFP.

In the days when my wife and I occasionally indulged in that classical Hong Kong hobby, visiting show flats at the weekend to see what was on offer, we were occasionally shocked by suggestions that tiny and rather unattractive spaces could be used for this purpose.

The most alarming example was in a three-story house and consisted of the space under the stairs which in more self-sufficient British households would be used as a broom cupboard.

I do not know why otherwise honest and reputable architects go along with this. Some developments are prepared to be honest and label the tiny room “maid” or “ser’t”. There is no room for more than four letters.

Rooms of this kind now appear in surprisingly small flats. An agent in Sha Tin is offering 700 square foot flats with three bedrooms, and a “store” complete with the give-away micro-toilet.

What is the difference between a “maid” and a “store”? My unscientific observation is that a “maid” will have a window and a “store” will not.

helper's room

A domestic worker’s room. Photo: Apple Daily.

I am prepared to be told that helpers who have a room of their own, however small, should count their blessings. At least they are not among the considerable number subjected to arrangements like a tent on the balcony, a plank on the washing machine, or the use of the living room sofa when the family have finished watching television.

The basic problem is that our government insists that helpers must live in their employers’ homes. It heads off complaints about this arrangement by insisting also that there should be a clause in contracts about accommodation. And then it loses interest.

This leaves enforcement of any understanding about decent accommodation up to the helper. Any complaint can lead to one of two outcomes:

The complaint is not substantiated, the offended employer fires you, and you must leave in two weeks. The complaint is substantiated, so the contract is annulled … and you must still leave in two weeks. Formal complaints are, understandably, rare. And I fear the obvious, if unlikely, solution would not help. If the government was persuaded to take an interest in protecting this vulnerable group of workers then occasional inspections would concentrate on the low-hanging fruit – flats which are obviously too small for a “store”.

Inspections would be dreaded by helpers because, as in the two scenarios above, the end of the story would be two weeks to go home. And after all once you are in it you cannot make your flat any bigger. I expect some of the employers who plumb depths in the provision of accommodation department have other merits which endear them to their helpers.

The basic problem is a toxic combination of two apparently unrelated government policies – insane land prices and the rule that overseas domestic helpers must live on the employer’s premises. The first is regarded as an insoluble problem and the second as not a problem at all. So I expect no progress.

In the meantime it seems to me that the architectural profession needs to brush up its ethics. I know you are supposed to supply what the client wants but it is a characteristic of a profession that it has standards it will not compromise.

You know what that little room next to the kitchen is going to be used for. The developer knows, the real estate salesman knows, and the buyer knows. Far be it from me to suggest that this implies some minimum size.

But for pity’s sake, we all know a human being is going to live in that box. Can we at least make sure it has a window?

A harmless deception? When domestic worker bedrooms are disguised as 'store rooms'