Press Releases in Hong Kong

Living on the breadline

Foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong find themselves in a financial quagmire as pandemic takes its toll on their lives. Wang Yuke reports from Hong Kong.

Foreign domestic workers rest and chat on a footbridge in Mong Kok on their day off. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

‘I have been struggling to pay for my son’s therapies and medical bills since COVID-19 struck. I’m at the end of my rope. But I know that no matter what, I need the money to ensure he will get through,” said Jota, a Filipino domestic worker, who has been working in Hong Kong for 20 years.

Jota has been grappling to make ends meet since the pandemic hit early last year. Although life is gradually returning to normal, she is still suffering from the financial and emotional shocks.

Stigmatization and marginalization of foreign domestic workers remains a scar in Hong Kong society, and has manifested itself throughout the pandemic

Karen Grepin, associate professor of public health at the University of Hong Kong

Jota, who declined to reveal her full name, is not alone in trying to get out of the quagmire. A survey conducted by HelperChoice and Enrich HK from May to June showed that 69 percent of 814 foreign domestic workers polled have been financially affected by the pandemic. More than 40 percent blamed higher expenses and having to send more money back to their families for their plight.

HelperChoice is Hong Kong’s first online platform aimed at linking up foreign domestic workers with prospective employers without having to go to a recruitment agency, while Enrich HK is a charity group dedicated to promoting the economic well-being of domestic workers in the city.

Zamira Monteiro, communications manager of Enrich HK, described the number of foreign domestic workers in dire financial straits as “staggering” and in line with what she had observed. Many foreign domestic workers are sole breadwinners and the only source of income for their families as many family members have lost their jobs due to the bleak economic climate, Monteiro said. “In the Philippines, the jobless rate is very high at 8.7 percent. So the domestic workers have to send more money home to help their families ride it out.”

Aggravated burden

Jota said her son was hit by a motorcycle in April 2018 — his left leg was broken and his brain severely damaged — aggravating her family’s nightmare. “He was catapulted into a hole and the sheer impact on his brain impaired his nervous system, affecting his mobility.”

Weekly medical consultations and therapies have become part of her son’s life since the accident, taking up a huge chunk of the family’s income. Her son’s medical bill comes to about HK$2,400 (US$308) monthly, while Jota earns just HK$4,630 a month in Hong Kong.

Fate has been cruel to Jota. As she was barely scraping through to cover her son’s medical expenses, her husband fell from a tree, fracturing his back. “I didn’t have even a penny to spare for my husband’s hospitalization.”

Betty Wagner (wearing blue mask), case manager at HELP for Domestic Workers, an outreach program at St John’s Cathedral (Hong Kong) that offers assistance to foreign domestic workers, talks to Mary Lobo (in pink top), one such worker. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Runaway inflation with skyrocketing commodity prices amid lengthy lockdowns in the Philippines has piled financial pressure on Jota. Besides the medical spending on her son and husband, she takes care of her three other sons’ cellphone bills of about HK$600 each month. The pandemic has made her bankrupt. Fortunately, her in-laws offered to help out using government subsidies.

Jota said she is “very stressful and desperate”. Since joining Gabriela Hong Kong — a non-governmental organization committed to promoting the rights and welfare of Filipino women — Jota has been relying on it to seek calmness and a sense of  belonging, and to alleviate her “pain, sorrow, loneliness, homesickness and anxiety”. It has helped her to cope with the situation, she said.

The hard times have also forced many expatriate employers to quit Hong Kong, leaving their domestic workers in the lurch. Some local employers are in the same boat, unable to keep their domestic workers, rendering them jobless overnight.

“We have seen even sound employer-employee relationships on the rocks. The domestic workers come to us for help or mediation in thrashing out the settlement terms with their employers, especially when their contracts were abruptly terminated because of the financial hardships of either their bosses or themselves,” said Manisha Wijesinghe, executive director of HELP for Domestic Workers — an outreach program at St John’s Cathedral (Hong Kong) that provides advice and help concerning employment and other issues to migrant domestic workers in the city.

According to some workers, they had not been paid for over six months after their employers lost their jobs amid the pandemic. “They were perplexed about how and where to get their money back, especially the newcomers,” said Wijesinghe.

Mary Lobo, a beneficiary of HELP for Domestic Workers, said she had been mistreated by her employer. “I was given only leftovers to eat and just HK$400 every month as food allowance.” Under Hong Kong labor laws, foreign domestic workers are entitled to a food allowance of HK$1,121 per month. “They verbally insulted me every day, criticizing me for being ‘smelly, dirty and disgusting’. I was hurt and felt enslaved.”

Lobo’s employer terminated the contract, which was somewhat of a relief for her because it ended her trauma. “I had to put up with it for more than 10 months. I just couldn’t take it anymore,” she said. But her heart sunk at the thought of having to find a new employer within 14 days, or she would have to return to the Philippines.

Some domestic workers at the end of their tether ended up taking loans from unscrupulous moneylenders who prey on the vulnerable by offering them “too good to be true” deals, Monteiro said. This aggravates their financial situation.

Mary Lobo is a beneficiary of HELP for Domestic Workers assistance. The organization provided mediation on problems between Lobo and her employer and helped her search for new job. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

According to the survey conducted by HelperChoice and Enrich HK, nearly 60 percent of foreign domestic workers said they had borrowed from moneylenders, with 11 percent claiming they were charged an interest rate of than 88.6 percent annually, which exceeds Hong Kong’s maximum legal annual interest rate of 48 percent per annum.

Huge stress has pushed some domestic workers to the verge of deep anxiety and depression. A survey jointly conducted by Medecins Sans Frontieres and local non-profit organization Uplifters late last year showed that 72 percent of foreign domestic workers polled had depression-related symptoms.

Wijesinghe also noted a rise in the number of domestic workers seeking mental support around Christmas last year when they normally would have gone home. “Their community support networks were gone as church and Sunday gatherings were banned.”

Badly needed support 

Amid financial and job insecurity, however, “they can barely find a person who is impartial and helpful and can put their hearts at ease”, said Mahee Leclerc, general manager of HelperChoice. “It’s awkward for them to talk about it with their employers. They don’t want to discuss it with their friends either for fear their friends might have a vested interest in their finances. It’s also uncomfortable for them to raise the problem with their families who might force them to make some financial decisions, or they just don’t want to make their families worry.”

Apart from financial problems and being jobless, domestic workers are worn out physically and mentally due to mounting workloads as children are cooped up at home, creating extra work for them. Although, sometimes they were not told to do extra work, they felt obliged to do it and this is “implicit stress”, Wijesinghe said.

“Even on their days off, some workers had to heed their employers’ advice to stay at home to avoid being infected by or spreading the coronavirus,” Leclerc said. Gathering with friends once a week is the most treasured social time for the workers but, in many cases, they have been deprived of this due to the public health crisis. Living with their employers almost every day instead of taking holiday breaks on Sundays has deepened their stress, she said.

Foreign domestic workers gather on a street in Central last September. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Intervention is badly needed to prevent a repeat of tragic incidents, such as the case of a 44-year-old Filipino domestic worker who committed suicide in Yuen Long in April last year. Although the Hospital Authority provides mental health services for the public during the pandemic, it is inundated with requests from local residents and has to give priority to those with severe symptoms. Foreign domestic workers’ needs were allegedly largely left unattended. “Sometimes, they just need an outlet or company to vent their frustrations. That is where our services come in,” said Wijesinghe, referring to the group support and one-on-one counselling provided by HELP for Domestic Workers during the pandemic. The measures aim to prevent the mental stress of domestic workers from increasing and leading to irreversible consequences. “If needed, we will refer them to psychiatric services.”

Such challenges are not new to Hong Kong’s ethnic minority, but the pandemic has aggravated the situation, Wijesinghe said. Improving the well-being and seeking justice for domestic workers, as well as fomenting societal inclusiveness, have come a long way in Hong Kong. But discrimination against the ethnic minority is far from being eradicated.

Stigmatization and marginalization of foreign domestic workers remains a scar in Hong Kong society, and has manifested itself throughout the pandemic, said Karen Grepin, associate professor of public health at the University of Hong Kong, who recently researched the pandemic’s impact on domestic workers and women. “They were singled out for compulsory testing although there is no evidence that domestic workers face a greater risk of contracting and transmitting COVID-19 than the general public,” she said.

“The Hong Kong government has also ruled that only foreign domestic workers vaccinated in Hong Kong can travel between the city and the Philippines. The government has never mandated any similar policy on vaccines given in any other country, suggesting that maids are being specifically targeted,” Grepin argued.

While Jota considers herself lucky that she hasn’t experienced any humiliation in Hong Kong so far, her friends have. “A Filipino friend of mine was splashed with dirty water by a vendor when she bought food at a street market. It’s inhuman,” she claimed.

Jota blames her meager wage for her financial woes. The government had raised the monthly minimum wage for foreign domestic helpers to HK$4,630 in 2019 from HK$4,520 the year before. “An increase of just HK$110 doesn’t really help,” she said. With the statutory minimum wage set at HK$37.5 per hour, Jota is upset that foreign domestic workers aren’t being reasonably paid. “We are 24 hours on call but underpaid. We find ourselves being excluded and discriminated against in terms of income.”

Foreign domestic workers have also been left out of the government’s cash payouts to eligible Hong Kong residents, as well as the fiscal stimulus packages to prop up the local economy.

But to address the underlying problem of discrimination, maybe we should start with changing how the minority group is termed. “We could refer to the minority group as ‘migrant domestic workers’ instead of ‘foreign domestic workers’,” Wijesinghe suggested. The subtle change will send a positive message that the minority community’s problems are not foreign to Hong Kong.

Contact the writer at jenny@chinadailyhk.com