Black maids and migrant workers

Updated: 2012-03-02 08:07

By Chen Weihua (China Daily)

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Black maids and migrant workers

Black maids and migrant workers

It was unusual for the French romantic comedy The Artist to take the Best Picture award at last Sunday's 84th Academy Awards ceremony, as it is a black and white silent movie that could have been made in the 1920s.

But among the Best Picture nominees, only The Help, which tells stories of racial tensions during the civil rights years of the 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi, is more thought-provoking than the others and leaves a strong lingering impression.

Octavia Spencer, who played a black maid in the movie, won the Best Supporting Actress award, but the movie, which received four nominations, deserved to win more.

For amid all the laughs, tears and drama, the movie's depiction of racial discrimination in the South about 50 years ago resonates with viewers because it is still felt by non-whites in the United States today, despite the huge progress that has been made which enabled an African American to become president for the first time.

Race is still a serious issue in the country. African Americans and Hispanics continue to be the groups with the highest rates of unemployment, poverty and imprisonment.

A USA Today/Gallup poll three years ago found 51 percent of whites, 59 percent of Hispanics and 78 percent of blacks thought racism widespread in the US.

Yet this serious issue is not discussed as much as it should be, whether by politicians, the news media or Hollywood. In that sense, The Help serves as a wake-up call.

What struck me the most is the moment when the black maid, Minny Jackson, played by Spencer, is not allowed to use the toilet in the owners' house. It reminded me of the fate of the millions of Chinese migrant women working as housemaids in urban families.

How many of these women are the victims of discrimination in China today?

Although the situation has improved, discrimination against migrant workers, mingong in Chinese, was widespread. In a survey conducted a few years ago by the company Data 100, 55 percent of migrant workers said they suffered discrimination and unjust treatment in cities.

Even today mingong, which number more than 200 million in China, frequently live in crowded and dilapidated houses. Their children are often left in the rural village and taken care of by their grandparents, or if they do live in the cities with their parents, they are often only able to attend poorly resourced schools for mingong children.

Despite their great contribution to China's three decades of economic boom - Time magazine even voted them its Person of the Year in 2009 - migrant workers still have to endure many hardships. Just as journalist Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, played by Emma Stone, talks to black maids in the movie to hear their stories, more journalists and writers in China should talk to migrant workers so they can tell of their lives.

Only by bringing the problems that migrant workers face in the cities where they live and work into the open and acknowledging them can we hope to put an end to them and create a truly inclusive society.

The author, based in New York, is deputy editor of China Daily US edition. Email:

(China Daily 03/02/2012 page8)