Virus wave worsens grim state of domestic helpers

Hong Kong—Janice Obiang choked back sobs as she packed goods to send to the Philippines, gifts for loved ones she hasn’t seen in years as the lives of domestic workers in virus-hit Hong Kong , going from bad to worse.

NOWHERE TO GO. A Hong Kong police officer walks past the belongings of a foreign domestic helper, who is wondering where to go on her Sunday day off. AFP

Few have suffered more during Hong Kong’s pandemic restrictions than the hundreds of thousands of women in the Philippines and Indonesia who work as domestic helpers.

And as the city reels from its most severe wave of coronavirus yet, many are now at breaking point.

“I really want to move, I really want to take a vacation,” Obiang said, as a policeman with a megaphone regularly reminded people not to gather in groups.

“But I have no choice, we have to stay,” the 36-year-old told AFP, adding that it had been four years since she had returned home. “We really miss our family.”

There are around 340,000 foreign domestics in Hong Kong, up from 400,000 at the start of the pandemic.

Paid a minimum of HK$4,630 ($590) a month, they work six days a week and must live with their employer in a city that offers some of the smallest apartments in the world.

Although the work is difficult, it pays more than women can earn in the Philippines, enabling them to support their families as primary breadwinners.
But the pandemic has made hard work even harder.

For two years, Hong Kong has kept the coronavirus at bay with a strict zero Covid policy and lengthy quarantines, meaning most foreigners haven’t seen their families for long periods.

The highly transmissible variant of Omicron surfaced earlier this year, but authorities were ordered by China to return to zero-Covid despite the exponential caseload.

As a result, the government began advising Hong Kongers to keep domestic workers indoors on their day off.

Police have also increased fines – the equivalent of one to two months’ wages for a domestic worker – for breaching the current ban on more than two people gathering in public.

Avril Rodrigues said her phone kept ringing with stories of escalating suffering and dismay.

“Imagine thinking ‘I’m not allowed to get sick’ for fear of losing your job,” Rodrigues, who works for the charity Help for Domestic Workers, told AFP.

But that’s exactly what happens to some people.

She recalled a woman calling from outside one of Hong Kong’s hospitals as she suffered thousands of new infections every day.

“(Her employer) gave her a quick test because she had a mild cold and when she went to the hospital, the employer told the agency to inform her ‘Don’t come back,'” Rodrigues said.

Multiple stories like this have emerged in the local media or at press conferences organized by increasingly furious charities and trade unions over the past fortnight.

Some had to sleep rough in an unusually cold winter, including a domestic helper with a young baby.

Last week, the Hong Kong government issued a statement reminding employers that they cannot fire a domestic helper just because they are sick and face fines.

Lita, 34, who asked to use a pseudonym, said staying with her employer on her day off just meant working seven days a week given the coffin-like size of her room, which is not rare in Hong Kong apartments.

“You come in like a dead person, only to sleep,” she said.

Jec Sernande from the Federation of Asian Domestic Workers Unions said many domestic workers did not even have their own bedroom.

“Sitting all day in the kitchen or in the living room is no rest,” she said.

Trade unionists like Sernande have long campaigned for better working conditions and are angered by the lack of compassion shown by authorities and some employers during the pandemic.

“They need more recognition because they contribute a lot to society and the economy,” she added.

Charity services were overwhelmed with requests for help, in part because few plans were in place to deal with the surge in cases when the disease finally broke out.

Last week, Philippine Consul General Raly Tejada said staff had aided dozens of nationals and were exploring possible legal options against those who fired aides.

Domestic helper Bebeth, 54, described current life in Hong Kong as “difficult and traumatic”.

But she was adamant about one thing: she will take him outside one day.

“We need to get outside, we need to feel free outside, we want to breathe in and exhale fresh air,” she said.

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