SCMP Wednesday, August 29, 2001
Love-hate relationships can erupt in violence
Racism, immaturity, stress, distrust, displaced anger, household power plays and Chinese history were among the reasons cited by experts yesterday for assaults on maids.
The relationship between employer and maid is often a love-hate one, according to Dr Ip Yan-ming, a psychiatrist who treats women who have lost control with their helpers.
"We have to trust them but, in effect, we're afraid of trusting them too much," said Dr Ip, also a spokesman for the Hong Kong College of Psychiatrists.
Disputes often started over unreasonable standards set by employers and escalate as maids mentally withdraw in response to being criticised, leading bosses to become even more angry, he said.
He treated one woman who became so furious with her maid, she picked up a knife, Dr Ip said.
He said stress played a role in such cases, with employers sometimes losing control when faced with battles at both work and home.
Chinese University associate professor of psychiatry Dr Sing Lee said verbal abuse was more widespread than physical assaults.
He said assaults were usually by women and could result from displaced anger at a stronger member of the household, such as the husband.
"In the household, the weakest person with the lowest status is a maid . . . It seems that Asians do discriminate against those with skin colour darker than yellow," he said.
However, Dr Lee noted that, historically, young Chinese women sold to wealthy families were often poorly treated but did not complain because it would shame their parents.
Most assaults worldwide took place in the home but Hong Kong was unusual in the high proportion of households employing maids, he said.
Abuse of maids was an important issue for many reasons, including the damage done to children witnessing abuse. A 1998 sociological study found Chinese employers were less likely to treat domestic helpers as human beings than Western employers in Hong Kong.
The study, based on interviews with maids who had worked for both Chinese and Western employers, used consideration, personal space and the work atmosphere as measures for viewing a maid as a person.
Almost 80 per cent of the maids named the Chinese as their worst employers in the study by Professor Cheung Tak-sing, from the Chinese University's sociology department.
Chinese employers were more likely to expect maids to work to a set schedule, scold them, look down on them, be suspicious of them and less likely to ask after their family.
Psychiatrist and former academic Dr Charnie Chen said assaults on maids were isolated, but he said women could take out their frustrations with their own employers on the maids they employed by hitting them.