Hong Kong: Pandemic turns domestic workers’ lives into nightmare

Hong Kong: Pandemic turns domestic workers’ lives into nightmare

“Imagine you saying to yourself: I have no right to fall ill or else I will lose my job”. Between unfair dismissals, unpaid overtime and extreme loneliness, few are suffering as many as the nearly 340,000 foreign domestic workers, the vast majority of Filipino and Indonesian women, during the pandemic in Hong Kong.

In Hong Kong, overwhelmed by the COVID-19 outbreak caused by the highly contagious Omicron variant, some of the world’s toughest restrictions have already been tightened, just as many countries are lifting theirs.

And the phone of Avril Rodrigues, a volunteer from the charity organization HELP, keeps ringing. At the end of the line, the domestic workers and their stories, one more atrocious than the other.

“A worker had caught cold. His employer asks him to get tested. The test is positive, the employer puts him on the road. She goes to the hospital. After a few days, her boss told her: + Don’t come back +”, says Ms. Rodrigues.

“Helpers” (literally “helpers”) work six days a week for Hong Kong’s generally affluent families, where they cook, clean and take care of the children for an average of €500 a month. care, which is more than that. They can claim in their own countries.

By law, these workers must live with their employer and are entitled to only one day off per week, during which they gather in city parks and streets to picnic, dance and sing.

But since the tightening of social distancing measures, many employers forbade their “assistant” from leaving out of fear that she would catch the virus outside. And those who still run the risk of meeting with their compatriots on Sunday are chased away by the police or fined, gatherings of more than two people are banned.

– “coffin” –

On this Sunday in February in the unusual rain and cold in Hong Kong, 36-year-old Janice Obang carries giant boxes and bags on the street. “Due to this situation, I have the right to go out only to pack (parcel) which I will send to my family”, laments this “assistant”.

“I really want to go home, see my family, take a vacation, but I have to stay, I have no choice,” she said, her voice suffocating.

Lita, 34, whose name has been changed at her request, is outraged: “If I stay home on my vacation, I have to work like any other day without pay”.

An observation supported by domestic worker and Federation of Asian Domestic Workers (FADWU) chief Jake Sarnande: “If kids knock on your door and ask you for something, you must give it to them, because you’re at home.” ,

And living conditions are not always conducive to rest. Lita mimics the size of her room, no bigger than a coffin, she says. “You come in like a dead man, just to sleep.”

Many workers do not even have their own bedroom. “Imagine spending your day on vacation, sitting in the kitchen or living room all day… It’s not relaxing,” says Ms. Sarnande.

“We need to breathe in and release fresh air, it’s not possible to be closed all the time! Bebeth, 54, says while talking to her friend from afar.

All describe daily life shrouded in uncertainty, “difficult”, even “painful”.

– “Homeless” –

According to FADWU, chronic stress and fatigue, along with social distancing-induced isolation, take a toll on the mental health of domestic workers. Some fall into depression.

And when a “helper” tests positive for COVID, sometimes a real nightmare begins for him.

“Some are dumped on the street or simply abandoned in front of the hospital by their employers who don’t want to care for them,” says Johanie Tong, a member of the charity organization Mission for Migrant Workers.

Others are fired straight away. The practice has had the effect, outlawing, of filling shelters for “helpers” in distress managed by non-governmental organizations.

Ms Tong points out that the problem is that these workers are completely dependent on their employers, despite the laws protecting them. A handful of NGOs intervene to advise and help them.

Trade unionist Jake Sarnande hopes to see greater recognition for these workers, who “contribute greatly to Hong Kong society and economy”.

The Philippine consulate in Hong Kong also reacted. “We intervene (…) with employers to convince them that the dismissal of their employees in these difficult times, especially when they are affirmative, is not only illegal, but immoral”, argues the consul, Rally Teja.

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