Pinoy musicians, entertainers in HK in limbo amid COVID-19 crisis

Jan Yumul, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Apr 24 2020 02:03 PM | Updated as of Apr 25 2020 09:45 AM

HONG KONG - When Filipino expat singer "Anna" and her band were told to stop working at their regular venue on Hong Kong Island soon after news of the first Filipino musician testing positive for COVID-19 broke on March 23, she thought it was best, for their safety.

In the same week, the Lan Kwai Fong bar and band cluster had swelled, with the Center for Health Protection revealing that 120 people needed to be traced. The government squared in on catering businesses, which allowed them to operate with stringent physical distancing measures in place, and subsequently the closure of amusement game centers, bathhouses, fitness centers, and cinemas. 

Most recently, the karaoke establishments, nightclubs, and beauty parlors were also ordered shut, and all the establishments mentioned are to remain so until May 7. Violators face a HK$50,000 (estimated P300,000) fine and jail time of up to six months.

On March 29, the law banning group gatherings of more than four came into effect, affecting the activities of mostly migrant domestic workers on their rest days.

And while operations at Anna's work venue still continued, so did their rent and daily expenses.

"'Yun talagang entertainment ang tinanggal nila kasi para daw 'di muna makapang-akit ng dami ng tao. Pero paano na kami wala kaming trabaho tulad niyan, 'no work,no pay' nga po. Apektado 'yung pagpapadala namin sa family," Anna told ABS-CBN News.

(They removed entertainment so it wouldn't lure crowds at the venue. But what about us on 'no work, no pay' employment? It has also affected our remittances to our family.)

Anna was hopeful that she and her band may be able to benefit from the Hong Kong government's HK$138-billion relief package, which includes a wage subsidy that is set to benefit some 260,000 employers with 1.5 million workers.

The government subsidies are calculated on the basis of 50 percent of wages, subject to a wage cap of $18,000 per month for a period of six months. 

Anna is neither a Hong Kong resident, as she had only been singing in Hong Kong for five years, nor enrolled in the Monetary Provident Fund (MPF) scheme. 

She said they went through an agent, but the agent is currently out of Hong Kong so they've been communicating with their office.

"Tanggap na rin namin na ganon. Hindi na rin kami nagreklamo na ganon kasi kumbaga naging stable din naman kami kahit papaano," said Anna.

"Inano ko na rin na i-continue ko nalang dito para na rin sa future ng mga anak ko nang madala ko sila dito at makasama ko sila," she added. 

(We've accepted it. We didn't complain because we're stable somehow. I'll just continue here for the sake of my children's future, so that I can bring them here and be with them.)

Anna is looking to see if she is eligible to apply for the Philippine government's cash assistance for OFWs affected by the COVID-19 crisis.

Hong Kong has two sets of MPF schemes: the Master Trust Schemes, an MPF system for employers to select from, and Industry Schemes, established for employers and employees in the construction and catering industries.

According to the MPF Schemes Authority, employers and employees are each required to make regular mandatory contributions of 5 percent of the employee’s relevant income to an MPF scheme, subject to the minimum and maximum relevant income levels. 

For a monthly-paid employee, the minimum and maximum relevant income levels are $7,100 and $30,000 respectively. 

Income streams for freelance artist Jen (who requested that her full name be withheld), a resident of Hong Kong for 10 years, had also stalled.

On a good day, her multi-faceted career would orbit around weddings, events, and intimate parties. She would regularly play in the Soho area and would also work as a show choir teacher and an events coordinator.

For now, the freelance artist has not had any gigs.

"Sadly, we live on the no work, no pay basis as freelance performers. Yet, our rent and bills are continuous and need to be paid in full. Some landlords are kindhearted enough to give a discount to their tenants, but unfortunately, my landlord is not one of those people," said Jen.

"I am just glad that I was able to save in the previous years. So right now, I am still doing okay. But not sure how long this is going to last, and how long 'til HK fully recovers from all this. I have not heard of any help for us from the government. Hong Kong does not have a system of unemployment assistance. I already looked," she added.

The singer also says she is aware of the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance, but is unaware of how it could help those like her. Those applying for CSSA have to meet residency requirements and take a financial test.

The Hong Kong government earlier announced that as part of its anti-epidemic fund, it was distributing an HKD$10,000 (P60,000) cash handout to all adult permanent residents in Hong Kong. Foreign domestic workers were excluded from the handout.

But long before the COVID-19 pandemic, the singer has been mulling over looking for a permanent job, which has also been met with some barriers.

"I was looking because of the instability during the protests. But then, jobs in HK require speaking Cantonese and Mandarin. Also, since I have only been doing music my whole life, my resume's work experience section is not that great, if I were to apply for a corporate job, I mean. All my years of experience are mostly in performing," said Jen, referring to pro-democracy protests in the city before the pandemic.

For long-time resident and former Tawag ng Tanghalan Global Hong Kong contender Penny Salcedo, livelihood for professional musicians and singers in the city has long been unstable. 

Salcedo's singing career has, for a long time, weathered many storms in Hong Kong. She recently left her job at an establishment in Tsim Sha Tsui, which she tells ABS-CBN News has nothing to do with COVID-19.

"So with SARS back then, and now COVID-19 even worse, it's like we've hit doomsday. Some establishments with five bands had kept the jobs for them on adjusted schedules. Instead of the usual six nights a week, it was reduced to three to four nights. And this means, reduced salaries," said Salcedo.

Sadly, Salcedo adds, many musicians she knows have "totally lost theirs," including those who have been singing at the same venues for more than 10 consecutive years and lost their jobs in a flash.

There were musicians and singers who opted for the CSSA assistance, Penny shares. But not all musicians have the opportunity to apply for this. If one is lucky enough to get through, she says, the amount one may receive is "really on a tight budget."

"I was one of those 'lucky enough' to have received financial assistance during SARS outbreak wherein I lost, all in one go, three venues. Being a single mom, then with one child, I was in the list of prioritized cases. And for those living under these conditions, strict monitoring are implied and applied. And we understand why," she added.

The current situation has driven Salcedo to reconsider her career path. Should she consider going back to singing nightly once venues re-open would "depend and it remains to be seen."

"And this includes acceptable and reasonable talent fees and terms and conditions. And fair treatment to receive MPF is one of it," said Salcedo.

In an interview with ABS-CBN News on April 12, Philippine Labor Attaché to Hong Kong Melchor Dizon says his office was assessing about eight band members, non-permanent Hong Kong residents, of the bar and band cluster, including those positive with COVID-19 and those in quarantine. He said they were considered still at the job site.

"Mayroon na din nag-apply for the assistance sa DOLE-AKAP na nawalan ng trabaho kasi marami na rin nag-close sa bar. Mag-qualify sila doon, I think. 'Yung 8, possibly, they can get US$400," said Dizon.

(There are those who applied for the DOLE-AKAP program who lost their jobs because bars closed. I think they will qualify there. The 8, they can get US$400.)

The amount includes $200 in after-care assistance from OWWA, and another US$200 as one-time cash assistance.

Meanwhile, Manuela Lo, chairperson of the Hong Kong Musicians' Union who is assisting the Filipino musiciansDOLE, said that most of them have already started receiving the cash assistance fund from OWWA and DOLE-AKAP.