In January, Hong Kong’s Labour Department placed restrictions on the rest day of foreign domestic helpers, forcing them to stay home to safeguard their personal health and help reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus in the community.
They are also encouraged to stay away from crowds on public transport or at public places on their rest day. Those who need to go out are advised to wear a surgical mask and to avoid staying in crowded places.
Since then, the city’s estimated 400,000 domestic workers have been cooped up in their employers’ homes. This month, the government issued a further notice announcing the fine for breaching social distancing rules was to double.
Most of the migrant workforce, known as “helpers”, are women from the Philippines and Indonesia, who arrive on special visas requiring them to live in the homes of their employers – mainly Chinese or expatriate families.
Existing inequalities have been amplified by COVID-19, leaving scores of workers struggling to cope with the double burden presented by the pandemic, researchers have found.
“The Philippines and Indonesia have been hit hard by COVID-19 with huge consequences for these workers,” says Karen Grépin, associate professor at the University of Hong Kong who has been assessing the impact of the pandemic on them with other academics.
“They are dealing with their own financial insecurity, coupled with the increased demand for money from their families back home, who have struggled to get food or find work during lockdown,” she says.
Now experts warn that this marginalised group is facing a mental health crisis, with many forced to quit their jobs due to intolerable working conditions.
Domestic workers are often the main breadwinner in their families and many have young children they haven’t seen for long periods due to travel restrictions.
Meanwhile, the demands of their job have increased, as Hong Kong families spend more time at home.
Stressed employers have been taking out their anxiety on their staff, says Lynn, a 47-year-old Filipino worker who sends all her earnings home so her three children can attend private school. She has been a helper for 12 years, since her youngest child was three, and has not seen her family since July 2019.
“The quarantine measures mean I wouldn’t have enough vacation days to visit them,” she says. “It’s a big sacrifice and we can only talk to our kids on the phone, which is really hard.”
Lynn, who says she has a compassionate employer, volunteers at a health centre that has been inundated with domestic workers suffering from stress. “Many have depression, they come here crying and I offer counselling,” she says.
Some have been abandoned by their employers who have moved back to China or can no longer afford them; others are in debt or have been mistreated. “They are waking at 5am, working all day, cooking three meals, looking after children, going to bed at 1am,” says Lynn.
The curtailment of domestic workers’ freedoms followed a statement from the government advising employers not to give “helpers” their day off for fear of spreading the virus.
Furthermore, the government announced the city’s helpers would not receive a pay rise over the next year.
Last month the government issued a statement saying employers should not dismiss helpers who contract COVID-19 and that if they work on Sundays they should ensure they get their time off later. (Source: The Guardian)