AYI, or household helpers, typically work long hours away from home, live alone and lacking people they can turn to for advice. What to do about a mean-spirited employer? What about conflicts over habits? What about loneliness and longing for children back home?
Now, there is a hotline ayi can call for advice and a place they can visit for face-to-face counseling with a professional psychologist.
The Hao Jiazheng or Good Household Work hotline opened last Saturday. Every evening from 7:30pm to 9:30pm, a professional psychologist will be on the line. Every week, a half-day of face-to-face counseling will be offered; the day has not been determined.
So far there have been no calls about physical abuse.
Shanghai has more than 500,000 household workers, indicating a huge need for such counseling, according to Xie Lingli, president of the Shanghai Household Service Association.
Volunteer psychologist Anna Qin got her first call for help the moment she got to her hotline station on Tuesday. It was a live-in ayi with potential conflicts with her employer over living habits, involving washing, tidying up, privacy, and other things. She disagreed with some of her employer’s strict standards but said she didn’t know how to talk to her boss, for fear of losing her job.
“Our job is not only being a good listener to whom they can pour out their feelings, but also giving good advice and possible solutions, since that’s what they need most,” says Qin.
The ayi who called agreed to take Qin’s advice, make compromises and try to negotiate with her employer.
She also agreed to try face-to-face counseling in the future.
“Many ayi now live all by themselves away from home. They don’t have many friends to talk to when they have problems, let alone someone who can give them feasible advice,” says Qin.
Many ayi send money home and feel pressure to help support their families. Luo Xiao, 36, has worked in Shanghai for seven years. She had a very tough time last year when she learned her father back home in Sichuan Province was seriously ill.
“Though I called home every night to get information, I still can’t stop worrying,” Luo tells Shanghai Daily. “I worry whether my sisters have taken good care of him and whether he gets the right medication. I don’t know if I should go back, since my parents told me not to.”
Problems and pressures
She found it hard to put on a good face with her employer’s family and was distracted while working, however, her employer noticed her mood changes and spoke to her kindly.
“She comforted me and advised me to go home if it really worried me,” says Luo, “I followed her advice and got to see my father for the last time.”
But in some cases, the problems and pressures cannot be solved in time and may lead to conflicts with employers.
Zhu Fufei, the responsible person at the hotline and owner of a household service company, has heard many stories.
“We once received a complaint about an ayi’s sudden emotional outbursts at work because her husband was having an affair. She was distraught,” he says.
Then there was the absent-minded ayi who messed up the cooking when she learned that her child had run away from school back in her hometown.
After hearing about various problems, Zhu got the idea of setting up a counseling hotline for household workers who feel lonely and helpless in the face of trouble.
Leaving home, often in a rural area, and living alone in a very different, big city can cause stress, anxiety and fear, says counselor Qin. “Demanding work from critical employers and cultural differences all add to the pressure.”
Since many household workers live apart from their husbands and children, a crisis in marriage and problems with children are especially painful.
Some ayi feel very guilty when something bad happens to their child, say an accident or fight at school. They tend to blame themselves for not being there for them.
The Good Household Work hotline has around 15 volunteers who take turns offering help. More counselors may be recruited if demand increases.