by: Hazel Fok (Intern student of the 11th grassmediaction internship programme)
From the suspension of schools to working from home, from group gathering ban to increased unemployment, COVID-19 is threatening the livelihood of every Hong Kong citizen, both physically and financially. Among the citizens of Hong Kong, the impact of COVID-19 on migrant domestic workers is also significant yet overlooked because they usually work behind closed doors. Today, on International Labour Day, I have interviewed a few migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong on Charter Road to learn about their work and their situation in COVID-19.
A Normal Day for a Migrant Domestic Worker: Hannah’s Case
To understand the daily working schedule of migrant domestic workers, I have interviewed Hannah from the Philippines. While different employers have different practices, I believe Hannah’s experience can provide us with some insight into the weight and workload of migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong.
Working in a family of four adults and one elderly, Hannah usually works from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.on a normal day before COVID-19. From 6:30 onwards every day, Hannah had to wake each employer up and make breakfast for them individually in accordance with their work time: “At 8:00 a.m., I wake up the eldest [daughter] and prepare her things for work, like shoes, clothes, and bag. At 9:00 a.m., she’s out already. Then at 9:30 a.m., the youngest [daughter] needs to wake up. At 10:00 a.m., Mum wakes and I make breakfast for her.” After 4 to 5 times of cooking in the morning, she also has to clean the dishes. Eventually, after finishing the morning routines of the family, it is time for Hannah to prepare lunch and clean her employers’ rooms. Then, from 2:00 p.m. onwards, she would be preparing dinner and handwashing the laundry for her eldest. While each family member gets off work at different time, Hannah sometimes has to serve them dinner at different time. Finally, she would finish work by washing all the plates at around 10:30 p.m. after all her employers finish dinner.
“I have no spare time,” Hannah said at the beginning of the interview, and after learning her daily work schedule, I definitely understood better what she meant. Even though she is supposed to rest after work at 10:30 p.m., at times she would look up online receipts and Youtube cooking videos in her room. “The daughters like Western-style, but Mum likes Chinese style. […] My male employer has high blood pressure. ” said Hannah. Since Hannah mentioned that she got off work already, then I assumed that learning cooking could be one of her hobbies. Thus, I asked her whether learning cooking is leisure or work for her. And to my surprise, she replied: “It is still work for me, not leisure…” Then in this case, is Hannah really “getting off work”?
(After an hour of interview, we took a photo with Hannah.)
A Normal Day Under COVID-19 for Migrant Domestic Workers
“More cleaning, less cooking,” Hannah summarized her new daily routine under COVID-19. As all her employers are now working from home, the entire family can eat dinner together, so she only needs to serve dinner once. Nonetheless, the multiple times for cooking breakfast and lunch remains due to the different work schedule and habits of each of her employers. Besides, COVID-19 has given Hannah new challenges in cleaning: “More alcohol, bleach, disinfectant. I almost died. (laughing) The smell is so strong. Every time they go out they come back, even their bag, their shoes, you must clean with disinfectant.”
Hannah’s experience in increased cleaning workload is not a lone case. Over the months, I also heard similar experiences from other migrant workers. Indeed, many employers have raised their standard and expectation of cleanliness under COVID-19, resulting in rocketing cleaning workload for migrant domestic workers. For example, a migrant I knew had to stand outside the toilet to clean the toilet every single time after a guest used it, while her employer threw parties much more frequently at home because group gatherings weren’t allowed in restaurants or public places. Another migrant worker I knew had much more dishes to clean as her employers dine in every meal every day: “My employer always orders takeaway now instead of going to restaurant or yum cha. Yet, she still needs the take-away food to be placed on dishes. My whole day now is just cleaning dishes. I have to put the dishes back into the drawer, but then immediately I have to take them out again.”
Other than increased cleaning work, many migrant workers had to spend a portion of their salary on buying masks and other protective gears while some couldn’t go out on their holiday as demanded by their employers. For Hannah, she had to spend extra money to buy alcohol to clean her body after returning to her employers’ home. Another migrant worker I met today, Remelyn, mentioned that it was the first time in leaving her employer’s home in 3 months. Since Hong Kong government has been urging citizens to stay home and even made specific appeal to the employers and migrant domestic workers for the workers to stay at the employers’ home in their rest days during COVID-19, many migrant domestic workers are directly or indirectly pressured to stay at their employers’ home during rest days. However, staying at their workplaces creates the possibility for employers to ask migrant domestic workers to work, resulting in some migrant domestic workers losing their day offs.
Situation of COVID-19 in the Philippines
Nonetheless, while most migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong more or less maintain their daily work routine, their families back in the Philippines have an entirely different experience. On 16 March 2020, Philippine President Duterte declared a total lockdown of the Luzon area which was immediately put into practice the next day, leaving many families in panic and under-preparation. As Dolores, Chairperson of United Filipinos in Hong Kong (UNIFIL), exclaimed: “It was very chaotic. The government wants people to maintain social distance, but all the people were going to the market to buy enough food and provision.” As of now, the lockdown in the Philippines has been extended to 15 May and has been carried out strictly by police and the military in which over 100,000 “violators” were arrested for violating the curfew. Dolores expressed discontent towards the lockdown, she said: “Many parents are just going out in order to buy food for their hungry. […] But then, they are arrested for violating the curfew.”
“The lockdown is very problematic because it is not supported with other programmes that would make it successful,” noted Dolores. In the Philippines, the government has created a social amelioration program(SAP) for 18 million poor families. However, Dolores believed that it was highly insufficient: “Many people couldn’t go to work under the lockdown. They have no income. And so many families in need are excluded, like elderly who have pension, families with a member working overseas, and family with a big house. Having a big house doesn’t mean they have money, they could have spent it all on the house.”
Deliberate Exclusion of Migrant Workers in Home and Host Countries
Migrant workers are undoubtedly facing a very difficult situation under COVID-19. With the Philippines in a total lockdown, migrant workers have more financial burden in supporting their families back home. For example, Hannah has been supporting her family for two months as the sole breadwinner. Even though migrant workers are earning more compared to workers in their home countries, their salary is limited and much lower than the minimum hourly wage of Hong Kong: “At the moment, I am supporting my immediate family, my mother and my son. […] My siblings who could not also work are asking me for help. “Can you give me some money to buy rice and sardines?” they said. But I really cannot give them because I don’t have enough for my immediate family.”
(A photo of us with Dolores.)
Besides having to support their families, OFWs’ families are excluded from the social amelioration program(SAP) of the Philippines Government. “We are abandoned. Our families didn’t get government assistance simply because they have family members who are working abroad,” exclaimed Dolores. Throughout the lockdown, Dolores’ family only got 6 kg of rice from the government. On 16 April, the Department of Labour and Employment(DOLE) in the Philippines finally declared a cash assistance program for OFWs under COVID-19. While many OFWs applied for the assistance, it was revealed that only terminated OFWs can get the aid to which Dolores considered unjust. “It is unfair. Even if we work overseas, we are still affected by COVID-19 financially. Many OFWs’ income and working hours are still cut short and earn much less than before even if they are not terminated.” said Dolores.
(Hannah and her friends were joining the protest organized by migrant domestic workers on International Labourers’ Day, asking for assistance for Overseas Filipino Workers as well as staging other demands to the Philippines Government.)
While Hong Kong has declared an HKD10000 cash subsidy to its citizens, migrant domestic workers are excluded. Not only did they have no support from their home countries because their government disregarded and didn’t account for migrant workers’ difficulties overseas, they also had no support from the host countries because they are “foreigners". As Eni Lestari Andayan, Chairperson of IMA (International Migrants Alliance), noted in the talk “Impact of COVID-19 to Migrants Hong Kong & Macau community” today (1 May): “In times of COVID-19, we are the ones who care for HK families, elderly, children, even the adults because now people are working from home. But who cares for the migrant? No one. We didn’t receive a single mask or sanitizer.”
After learning about Hannah’s 14-hour work day and how she cared meticulously for her employer’s family, it is evident that her employer needed her skills and care, like ten of thousands of families in Hong Kong. Then, why is it that they had no support from our Hong Kong government and Hong Kong society? It is time for us to question ourselves: Have our city been respecting migrant domestic workers? Have we paid them what they deserve and provided them with humane care or did we actually abandon them in times of crisis because they are not “local”?
On one hand, it is upsetting to see our government excluding migrant domestic workers from what they need and deserve. On the other hand, it is a reminder for us, as the citizens of the society, to play our part and support our migrant domestic workers, those who have been taking good care of us and our families, so that they can get dignified treatment from our government. And especially on this day, the International Labours’ Day, let us bare in mind the sacrifices migrant domestic workers have done for our city.
＊It has been the practice of hong kong people to call the migrant domestic workers of various ethnicities (migrant workers or mdw) as foreign servants, while the hong kong government would use foreign domestic helpers (fdh), however we see that, quite a few of them had been toiling in their services for hong kong for many years, and had contributed to the development of the society and economy, their works should not be go unnoticed, and they are an essential part of the population. these namings carried with them unnecessary segregation of who’s in and who’s out and exclusion, therefore we have chosen to call them as migrant domestic workers of various ethnicities (migrant workers or mdw), to state our willed vision to walk and work with the labouring workers. and let it be noted.
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