Domestic workers

Hong Kong’s foreign domestic workers face a lonely fate amid the Covid pandemic

HONG KONG — Testing positive for the coronavirus was the last thing “Kay” expected. She was between contracts as a foreign domestic worker in Hong Kong, and was only tested in February so she could return to the Philippines the next day for the first time during the pandemic.

Although she had no symptoms, she went to a public hospital to ask if she should go to a centralized isolation center in accordance with the territory’s ‘zero-Covid’ policy for infected patients. . But cases had spiked as Hong Kong faced its worst pandemic outbreak, and hospital staff discharged her, saying she should self-isolate at home.

Kay, who had lived with her employer, tried to explain that she had no home to return to, but was still standing in the rain.

“I didn’t know what to do, where to go,” said Kay, 35, who declined to give her name for fear of jeopardizing a future job in Hong Kong. “It’s the first time I’ve had a problem so far from home. I don’t even have family here to ask for help, so it was just like, ‘Why, my God, why did you give me this situation? I am alone.'”

The pandemic has presented particular challenges to people like Kay, one of some 340,000 foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong. It has separated them from their families in countries like the Philippines and Indonesia, while exposing them to what advocates say is greater discrimination in Hong Kong amid virus fears and a lack of support s they are infected.

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During this year’s outbreak, caused by the highly transmissible omicron variant of the virus, dozens of domestic workers who tested positive were fired by employers who did not want their families exposed, said Manisha Wijesinghe. , executive director of the local non-profit group. HELP for domestic workers.

Domestic workers are legally required to live in the homes of their employers, and the group provided shelter for Kay and many others who had nowhere to go after being made redundant.

That’s what happened to ‘Mary’, 46, after her employers asked her to take a rapid home test in February. When the test came back positive, they terminated his contract and told him to leave.

Mary also went to a public hospital to take a formal test, but was told to wait for the results at home. She spent the night near a bus stop in unusually cold weather before a friend sent her Wijesinghe’s group number.

“I feel so sad and I feel so overwhelmed…because the feeling that you’re alone, out of the hospital, freezing night, so freezing, and you don’t know where to go the second night. I’m just praying for that night,” said Mary, who is from the Philippines and also declined to give her name because she planned to continue working in Hong Kong.

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Domestic workers congregating on Sunday, their only legal day off, have been fined more than their minimum monthly wage for breaching Covid restrictions.Bertha Wang/AFP via Getty Images

In an email to NBC News, the Hospital Authority, Hong Kong’s governing body for public hospitals, said the number of Covid patients had skyrocketed during the omicron outbreak. In February, he said, a decision was made to “reserve medical resources and isolation beds for patients who need them most.”

“Priority has been given to elderly and pediatric patients with serious conditions; younger patients and those with mild symptoms or no symptoms were asked to stay home,” he said.

For domestic workers who tested positive but were kicked out of their employers’ homes, that meant sleeping in cars, parks and outside hospitals, according to local media. In February, the Hong Kong Department of Labor issued a statement tell employers to “show compassion” and not fire domestic workers because of their infections.

Critics say the government has itself encouraged discrimination with some of its policies. Domestic workers returning from abroad have been required to stay in specific quarantine hotels rather than choosing their own, and last year the government briefly considered making Covid-19 vaccination compulsory only for domestic workers. before backing down in the face of criticism.

In February, chief executive Carrie Lam said the government would show ‘no mercy’ by fining domestic workers accused of breaking pandemic restrictions when they gather in public on Sunday, their only day. legal leave. The fine of HK$5,000, or about $600, is higher than the minimum monthly wage for a domestic worker of $4,630. A crowdfunding campaign to help cover workers’ fines has been halted after the government threatened legal action.

General views in Hong Kong as the city reports to seek help from China to control the pandemic during a meeting
Domestic workers in Victoria Park in February as Hong Kong faced its worst coronavirus outbreak of the pandemic. Bertha Wang/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Mary and Kay, whose quarantine periods ended in March, received counseling after their experiences. Kay was able to return to the Philippines to see her family and plans to find a new job in Hong Kong.

Mary has been re-employed by the family she previously worked for, but she says her Sundays off they only allow her to leave the house for a few hours, lest she contract the virus again. She stays in the small room she shares with another housekeeper for the rest of the day.

Although she is tired and unhappy, she says, she feels she cannot quit her job because she is supporting her family at home.

“So much stress here,” Mary said, adding that she was not stressed because of work, but “emotionally and mentally.”