About a month ago, I wrote about the predicament of domestic helpers. I had written it because one of my acquaintance’s helper confided in me about how she was feeling at her job. As this helper shared, she was fighting her tears.
This helper is usually quiet and doesn’t say much even though I see her almost every day. Today, while we were waiting for the school bus to come and pick the children up, she suddenly asked, “Jiejie (sister in Chinese), what ‘goondu’ mean?”
For a moment, I was surprised by her question. “‘Goondu’ is not a nice word. It’s Tamil for ‘stupid'”, I explained.
The helper kept quiet when she heard it.
“Mum say that to you?” I asked.
“Ya,” she said. “She always say me ‘goondu’. Jiejie, what ‘ka ni na’ mean?” She asked again.
I was surprised again. “‘Ka ni na’ is not nice. She say that to you too? In front of the children?” I asked. I knew well that “ka ni na” was a vulgarity in hokkien, but I wasn’t sure if I should tell the helper. I decided to just keep it as “not nice”.
“Ya, mum always say me. Sir also,” the helper shared. She went on to say how the employers would often say such things to her when she didn’t do her work to her employers’ expectations.
As this helper shared with me, I felt rather stuck. On the one hand, I wish I could help her. On the other hand, I can’t tell her just quit her job or run away because of the apparent verbal abuse from her employers.
Yes, verbal abuse. Domestics helpers are people who have feelings too. Calling them names and cursing at them in languages they don’t understand do not make the choice of words acceptable. With the recent focus on how domestic helpers treat children under their care, it is sad that some people fail to see how the employers, aka the parents of these children, affect the stress level of the domestic helpers who care for the children.
Granted, some domestic helpers may abuse the children in their care even if their employers are nice to them. However, there are a lot of domestic helpers whose employers, while not physically abusive, verbally abuse them. Daily doses of “goondu” and “ka ni na” only adds to the mental stress domestic helpers are under.
I didn’t know what else to say to this helper who had yet again confided in me. I could only say, “If mum scold you, just tell her sorry and you try your best. Maybe mum is very stressed because ah boy always sick and ah ma also sick. So mum wants you to learn fast. You try again, okay?”
The helper nodded quietly. “Ya, I try.”
I was not trying to find excuses for her employer or to justify the verbal abuse, but there really wasn’t much I could say to this helper who was confiding in me for the second time.
To all those who are employers of domestic helpers, your choice of words matter. Even when you use words your helper doesn’t understand, they can guess that the words don’t mean good things based on the tone you use. Verbal abuse is still abuse. Your helper is a human being with feelings too. No matter how stressed you are, be careful with your choice of words.