Safety is a political issue: Migrant domestic workers in China after the lock down

Published 7 May 2020 / By Chaoguo Xing

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This blog is part of the COMPAS Coronavirus and Mobility Forum.

According to data from iiMedia Research, the number of domestic workers in China reached 26.02 million in 2018[i], most of whom are women from the countryside. The majority of migrant domestic workers returned home before the Chinese New Year and were then isolated in the countryside because of the epidemic. Although the lock down has been lifted, it has been difficult for them to return to work in the city. One of the biggest challenges is to prove that they have travelled safely as required by the job placement intermediary, the government and the employer.

Employers’ concerns and job loss

Mobility is always associated with uncertainty and danger. The epidemic magnifies anxieties about movement. Anxiety is particularly acute in relation to domestic workers. Unlike delivery workers and couriers who can make their service "contactless", domestic workers work inside the employer's home, and care for young children and the elderly.

When assessing whether a domestic worker is “safe”, the employer normally considers the domestic worker's general health status, the severity of the epidemic situation in the place where the worker is from, and how strict the domestic worker intermediary, which places the worker to the employer’s household, has been in monitoring the domestic workers’ mobility and other activities. Usually employers are more concerned with the workers who had travelled over long distances. Those who experience high-level mobility in daily work, such as hourly workers or day shift workers as compared to their live-in counterparts, raise concerns too.

For this reason, domestic workers who had stayed in Beijing throughout the epidemic were eagerly sought after by employers because those who returned from home were regarded too risky. A father of two shared with me his concerns: "domestic workers should quarantine themselves for 14 days after arrived in Beijing. She says she did; but no one knows whether it is true." Employers also became more inclined to hire live-in women workers, so that they can control the workers’ movements effectively.

This concern has led to a significant job loss for domestic workers. Employers ask non-live-in domestic workers to “take a rest” till the employer feel the condition is secured. When the domestic workers take “rest”, they maintain nominal contracts with the employer, but are not paid. In most cases domestic workers receive salaries from the employer on a monthly basis (about USD $1000 a month for live-in workers plus food and lodging), but the amount is calculated by day. Most domestic workers are not paid at all throughout the entire Chinese New Year holiday.

Intermediaries’ concerns

Domestic workers’ intermediaries, formally “domestic service companies”, play a central role in the industry. There were 660,000 service companies nationwide in 2016, of which 21.3% earned an annual revenue of RMB ¥5 million (USD $700,000) or above, and 78.3% have a less revenue.[ii] Surprisingly, intermediaries are equally concerned about safety associated with the domestic workers’ mobility. The manager of one of the largest intermediaries told me:

"We didn't dare to let the [workers] come back, because it will be risky for the employer. We could not do [medical] testing. Giving up on orders is the only choice. It’s good for our clients, the newborn and domestic workers. We are in extraordinary times, safely is a political issue."

The safety concern is particularly acute among intermediaries who specialize in postpartum doulas (yuesao) service. They would dispatch workers to hospitals at the same time as the would-be mother, and could stay in the hospital for as long as a week. They may sleep in the same ward next to the mother’s bed, or are put up in dorms provided and managed by the hospital. The worker would then go home with the mother and the newly born. Each postpartum doulas service typically lasts one or two months, before the intermediary places the worker to the next family. The biggest worry for the intermediary is that the worker might bring the virus to the hospital. This would jeopardize the collaboration between the hospital and the intermediary, without which the intermediary would not be able to deliver service as many clients expect.

The big-small divide among intermediaries

With the gradual relaxation of mobility restriction in Beijing since March 2020, migrant domestic workers started returning and working in the city. Intermediaries are the central player who oversees the safety of the domestic workers’ mobility on the behalf of both the state and the employer. In the process, the differences between small firms and large players became obvious.

Small companies do not have facilities of their own for the migrant domestic workers to be quarantined after arriving in Beijing. They rent apartments in residential areas and work with the neighbourhood committee—the quasi government grassroots association—to make sure the workers comply rules. The neighbourhood committee would issue certificates to verify that the workers have completed the 14-day self isolation.

Big companies provide isolation facilities of their own, and are therefore able to impose more direct surveillance over domestic workers. They also invite medical professionals to the company to carry out training sessions for domestic workers about infection prevention and disinfestation operation. Some large companies require the domestic workers whom they placed to employer’s household to measure body temperature twice a day. The worker not only has to report their temperatures, but also has to send the mobile video clips that show how they actually took the temperature. When postpartum doulas workers move from employers’ households back to their dormitories, or move from the dormitory to another household or to a hospital, the company arranges point-to-point transport. These measures aim to make the domestic workers "contactless” with the outside world beyond the intermediaries’ dormitories and the employers’ households.

As mobility is associated with health risk, and providing employers with “safe workers” become a key for intermediaries to secure business, domestic workers may well become less mobile and increasingly tied to particular intermediaries. In other words, intermediaries may become even more powerful.

About the author: Chaoguo Xing is Associate Professor in Sociology, University of Science and Technology Beijing and is a COMPAS Visiting Academic


[i] iimedia research 2019. "China domestic service industry data analysis: 2018 employees reached 26.02 million people"

[ii] Ministry of Commerce of China. 2018. "Chinese Domestic Service Industry Development Report 2017". Beijing: Ministry of Commerce of China