On Feb. 9, Twitter user @kthseokkity posted a screenshot of the first episode of the Chinese drama “Make My Heart Smile.” The screenshot showed the male lead character describing a female character while she was trying on clothes by saying that she looked like “a Filipino maid.” This quickly drew flak and thousands of negative reactions from Filipinos and Southeast Asians. While some netizens said that the subtitle was a mistranslation, they also clarified that the Chinese term xiàng fēi yōng, meaning “like a Filipino servant,” mentioned in the clip is commonly used to refer to “cheap” Southeast Asian labor.
In whatever context it was used, the line was offensive. Using the term “Filipino maid” to describe your disapproval of the way someone dresses themself is a clear signifier of an underlying belief that the people you’re referring to are beneath you and are worth demeaning, thereby making them easy targets. An entire profession and nationality shouldn’t be an insult, especially when that profession is as loaded and important as an overseas Filipino domestic worker. Thousands of Filipinos leave their homes to seek better opportunities abroad, sometimes risking their lives doing so, yet most still perceive them as people inferior to others because of their nature of work. These people are vulnerable to exploitation and physical abuse, which makes the offhand comment even crueler: because of how casually the male lead dispenses the comment, it normalizes the mindset that it’s okay to demean workers, which in turn normalizes their exploitation
The vulnerability of domestic workers
This is a widespread problem, with the United Nations’ International Labour Organization (ILO) noting cases of labor law violations towards Filipino domestic workers abroad, including forced labor, trafficking and other abuses. In Oct. 2020, Amnesty International reported that around a hundred Filipino domestic workers in Qatar have admitted to working over 16 hours a day for seven days a week, or having their passports confiscated. Some of the Qatar respondents even admitted to having suffered physical abuse at the hands of their employers. Violence against Filipino domestic workers isn’t limited to Qatar, and globally, physical abuse against domestic workers has led to deaths. A few infamous cases are Flor Contemplacion who was accused of murdering her fellow domestic worker and executed by the Singaporean government despite many alleging that the domestic worker was actually killed by her employer and Joanna Demafilis who was killed by her employer in Kuwait and found dead in a freezer.
Due to scores of cases of unethical working conditions, Filipino and other migrant domestic workers have been dubbed the “slaves of modern Asia.” The keyword “slave” shows how grave the situation is because instead of domestic workers being properly compensated and respected for their hard and honest work, they’re enslaved to their work and treated a class below their employers. There have been several reported cases of domestic workers being refused proper compensation, forced to work long hours, not being allowed to have day offs, being threatened if they choose to go back to their home countries and suffering forms of physical abuse whenever their employers lose their temper.
While iQIYI has already apologized and pulled the drama from its platform, there’s no denying that some people still use the term “maid” as an insult and that there still are Chinese people who stereotype domestic workers, specifically from the Philippines and Southeast Asia, with the common use of “xiàng fēi yōng” as such. There are around 35 million domestic workers in China, with an increasing number of Filipinos, Indonesians and Cambodians among them in major cities. So Chinese authorities need to do better in representing the people who work there—from educating their citizens to respect them to enforcing policies that protect them.
We hope this situation brings to light the fact that most domestic workers all over the world are still being mistreated and continue to fight for their human rights. While it matters that we raise awareness to the situation of domestic workers and support their positive perception, there needs to be more laws, agreements and programs that will actually ensure the workers’ protection. While laws like the Domestic Workers Act and deployment bans have already been enacted, legal offices and non-profit organizations are still urging governments to be more proactive as cases of physical abuse against domestic workers abroad still exist. Domestic workers are human beings who aren’t owned by anybody and they deserve proper working conditions like everybody else.