Photo Credit: VCG

The Ayi Industry

The modern problems of and market solutions for China’s army of domestic service workers

Stuffing her black backpack with cleaning materials, 45-year-old Lu Ayi leaves her bungalow outside the Sixth Ring Road in the east of Beijing, heading to her first appointment of the day at eight in the morning. It takes at least two hours and a bus transfer to get to her client’s home near Chaoyang Park inside the Fourth Ring Road, but she’s not too worried. Her company offers six RMB in compensation for trips like this, and she can save four. Wiping, scrubbing, and washing meticulously, all at the rate of 25 RMB per hour, until the two-bedroom apartment is spotless, she then rushes to do the same on the other side of the city—just another day.

Lu Ayi’s face is tanned and there are wrinkles at the corners of her eyes, but her bright eyes reveal a cheerful nature. Many in Lu Ayi’s position come from difficult circumstances; her misfortunes began with a gambling husband. Skipping out on his debts, he disappeared, leaving his family and his job as a coal miner. Lu Ayi had to persuade the coal mine to hire her as a replacement just to earn a living. Today, she is part of a burgeoning but sometimes dangerous industry, that of the domestic service worker.

There are over 22 million women like Lu Ayi across the country working in the domestic service industry (家政服务). Primarily women from rural areas, they are called baomu (保姆, nanny), zhongdiangong (钟点工, hourly worker), or the more affable ayi, (阿姨) which means “aunt”. However, in this case, these “aunts” are a part of the family in the sense that they do the cleaning, cooking, babysitting, nursing of children and the elderly—whatever chores busy, modern Chinese families have no time for, or simply can’t do.

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