Demonstrations, COVID-19 pandemic chipping away at HK domestic worker population

Jan Yumul, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jun 14 2020 12:56 AM

Demonstrations, COVID-19 pandemic chipping away at HK domestic worker population 1
Jobless OFWs finally on a flight to the Philippines from Hong Kong. Photo from Consul General Raly Tejada

HONG KONG - Amid a downward spiral in Hong Kong's foreign domestic worker population, no fewer than 100 Filipino domestic workers recently sought assistance from the Philippine Consulate and the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) after a series of flight cancellations prevented them from returning home to the Philippines due to travel restrictions, thereby racking up daily expenses in Hong Kong.

The domestic workers consisted of those who have been terminated, as well as those who broke their contracts. Their employers paid for their tickets. At least eight out of 69 overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in one group spoke with ABS-CBN News about their plight in Hong Kong.

The latest batch of around 100 OFWs was the latest to depart the city on June 10. 

Consul General Raly Tejada said a group of OFWs was first repatriated to Manila via CX907 (Cathay Pacific) on June 6. Consul Paul Saret of the Assistance to Nationals section told ABS-CBN News at least 80 were assisted by the Consulate "to be able to join the other regular passengers of CX".

"It was not a chartered flight, but a specially arranged one with CX and PHL gov't authorities, the latter being made through DFA's OUMWA (Department of Foreign Affairs – Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Workers Affairs)," Saret told ABS-CBN News in a text response.

Hong Kong Immigration statistics showed that in January 2020, there were 400,121 foreign domestic workers. But by May, it shrank to 387,342. The Filipino domestic worker population fell from 219,729 in January to 212,855 in May. Similarly, the Indonesian domestic worker population dropped from 170,898 in January to 165,377 in May. 

Among those stranded was H.P., who hails from Isabela and was also the designated 'spokesperson' of the group, a now out-of-job Filipino domestic worker who was in the city for one year and four months and was among those who were able to depart on June 10.

She said her termination stemmed from a misunderstanding with her employer. In the end, she said, they had 'mutually agreed' for the contract to end. She left her employer's residence at 10 p.m. on May 8.

"Lumapit po ako sa POLO pero hindi na daw ako pwede makapag habol kasi pirmado ko na, which is first-timer din ako dito sa Hong Kong kaya hindi ko rin po alam yung gagawin ko pag nasa situation ka na na magulo na. Ang iniisip mo na lang makababa ka sa employer mo," said H.P.

(I went to the Philippine Overseas Labor Office but I can't file claims because I signed an agreement with my employer...which is I'm also a first-timer here in Hong Kong so I don't know what to do in that messy situation. I kept thinking to just leave my employer.)

"Lei" (not her real name), in the same group, has been left jobless for three months. She was initially made to pay HK$50 (P300) per day at a boarding house. 

"Ngayon, sobrang nahihirapan ako. Inutang ko yung pang boarding house ko," Lei told ABS-CBN News.

(Now, I'm really having a hard time. I had to borrow some money to pay for my boarding house.)

She said she cleans the house so she could stay for free, for now. She is hopeful she will find a new employer and return to Hong Kong, and promised to pay the Filipino caretaker of the boarding house when she does.

"Tina", "Sally," and "Jel" shared how they all used up their last salaries. The hefty visa extension fees at HK$230 (P1,380) for their meager salaries in Hong Kong, food, and fare have chipped away at money meant for the family for their survival in a city that has excluded them from its multi-billion anti-epidemic fund. Among the measures is that all adult permanent residents of Hong Kong are eligible to receive HK$10,000 (P60,000) from July 8.

"Ako nakakuha ako ng one month. Sinafe ko na sa family ko kasi hindi ko alam kung hanggang kailan ako dito," said Sally. 

(I got one month. I saved it for my family because I don't know how long I'll be here.) 

"Longing na po ako makabalik ng Pilipinas. Mag start na lang po ako ng life ko doon," said Jel. 

(I want to return to the Philippines. I want to start my life there.) 

The pandemic's global travel restrictions have caught thousands of OFWs abroad and in the Philippines in a limbo. An April 2020 Ateneo de Manila University policy brief estimates that some 300,000 to 400,000 OFWs are being affected globally, facing lay-offs, pay cuts and even repatriation. 

"Gina", who hails from Antique, said she got paid 12 days' worth of salary, which was about HK$1,800 (P10,000) and tried seeking refuge at shelters, but they were full.

"Minsan sabi po nila tatawagan (ako) pero wala naman tumatawag kasi alam naman po namin 'di ba sa COVID-19 ngayon, punuan ang shelter. Walang magawa," said Gina.

(Sometimes, they would say they would call me but they haven't called. I know there's a COVID-19 pandemic, the shelter is full and they can't do anything.) 

Last month, the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) reported that close to 86,000 OFWs affected by the pandemic have been extended assistance under the "Abot Kamay Ang Pagtulong" or AKAP program.

In its press release on May 2, it said that its labor offices in 40 posts across the globe and the offices of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) in the country already received 336,809 requests for assistance from both onsite and repatriated OFWs as of May 1.

"Of the total applications, 85,849 OFWs were qualified and granted the one-time P10,000 or $200 cash assistance from the P1.5-billion emergency aid program for OFWs who were displaced from their jobs due to lockdowns in their host countries or stranded by the community quarantine in the Philippines," said the DOLE. 

But not eligible among the stranded is "Chudi" who said she gave her employers' a month's notice on May 17. 

"Hindi ko na po kasi matiis yung ugali po ng mga amo ko," said Chudi. "Hindi daw po ako qualified sa AKAP kasi hindi ako binigyan ng release paper ng aking amo saka hindi po nila binigay yung copy kaya wala po akong maipakita na proof kaya grinab ko na po yung HK$500. Malaking tulong na din po yun sa amin para pang tawid gutom po dito sa HK," she added.

(I could no longer stand the attitude of my employers. I'm not qualified for the AKAP program because I wasn't given a release letter by my employer and they did not give me any copy so I could not show any proof. So, I grabbed the HK$500 given to us. It's a big help to tide us over when we go hungry here).

Chudi said some of the money they were given reportedly came from the pockets of POLO and Consulate officials.

Watch more on iWantTFC

"Lara," who also broke contract on May 17, held back tears as she recalled the time her employers threatened to report her to the police even if they knew she was admitted to the hospital for gastrointestinal bleeding and anemia from April 26 to 28, as well as on May 22 and 28.

Lara said she had to speak with the nurse to show proof to her employers that she was in the hospital. She was given a 7 p.m. deadline and if she did not comply, they would call the police.

"Pero sabi ko na lang po, sige po, tumawag sila ng police. Kasi nandun naman na ako sa ospital. Alangan naman dalhin nila ako sa presinto naka-dextrose nako," said Lara.

Lara said she had a blood infusion and was allowed to go home after spending overnight at the hospital. But she was still feeling weak when she got home. She was reportedly made to work the whole day even if she was looking pale. She said she has reported her employers to POLO, but is not interested in filing any claims. 

"Dito naman po government naman po kasi yung ospital na pinuntahan ko. Yun nga lang, nagbabayad pa ako ng hospital room. Kaya yung pabalik-balik po ako ngayon, minsan may part-time job naman po ako kahit na risky, pinupuntahan ko para lang po may pambayad sa hospital," said Lara.

(The hospital here is a government hospital. I still pay my hospital room so with having to return, sometimes I take up part-time jobs even if I know it's risky. I go to it just so I can pay for the hospital.)

She's expecting her CT scan on June 17, but she said she would rather fly home than know the results. As of this writing, Lara has left Hong Kong.

Hong Kong has been rocked by social and political tensions sparked by year-long, often sporadic demonstrations opposing Beijing's tightening control over the Special Administrative Region (SAR). It was largely ignited by a now-junked extradition bill allowing suspects to be tried in Mainland China.

The protests marked its anniversary on June 9, which ended with 53 arrests in Central for participating in an unlawful and unauthorised assembly, according to local police. This, amid Beijing's plans to impose a highly contentious national security law, which many say have eroded the "one country, two systems" principle, bypassing the city's legislature. The law may be in place by August.

At least five Hong Kong Universities have declared support for Beijing's move. They include Lingnan University, Education University of Hong Kong, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and the University of Hong Kong, with the last three universities becoming a battlefield. 

Prominent business figures such as Hong Kong's richest man Li Ka Shing, hotel and energy magnate Michael Kadoorie, who owns the Peninsula hotels, have also expressed support for the national security law.

On June 4, Hong Kong's Legislative Council passed a controversial national anthem law, which will see anyone misusing or insulting the Chinese national anthem face a fine of up to HK$50,000 (P300,000) and jail time for three years. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam signed the National Anthem Ordinance on June 11, coming into effect on Friday, June 12. 

Like many businesses, the social and political climate have also dented remittance business operations, like those at World-Wide Plaza, a protest hotspot. 

Joel Almeda, chairperson of the Philippine Bankers' Club Hong Kong, said that since last June, remittance companies have felt the slowing down of businesses, which had already been facing stiff competition from fintech. 

He said the limited physical mobility driven by safety and health measures has redirected workers to online payments. Even with social distancing measures in place, they've had to employ people to help arrange the queues. 

"Malaki yung epekto nito kasi uncertain eh, kasi ang problema hindi lang naman OFWs ang kumokonte na dumarating. Marami rin natatanggalan ng trabaho dahil yung employers ngayon, umaalis ng Hong Kong," said Almeda. 

(This has a big effect because of uncertainty. The problem is, it's not just that arriving overseas Filipino workers have declined. There are many who have also lost their jobs because their employers are leaving Hong Kong.)

"First, either they leave HK... second, nawalan ng trabaho because of the situation. Third, yung mga nawalan ng mga trabaho na mga amo, kailangan nila i-let go yung helper nila," he added.

(First, either they leave HK...second, they lost their job because of the situation. Third, their employers who have lost their jobs, they've had to let go of their helpers.) 

According to a June 12 report from The Standard, investors have drawn out a total of HK$1.435 billion from their Mandatory Provident Fund accounts during the last quarter of 2019 for reasons of 'permanent departure from Hong Kong', said to be the largest quarterly withdrawal on record. Some 8,300 applications amounting to HK$1.398 billion were withdrawn on the ground of emigration. 

In April, domestic worker recruitment portal HelperChoice said it had 15,000 applicants looking for a job in their platform since January. 

"Within these, 92% were Filipinos. The 150% increase in the traffic between March and early April comes mainly from employers rather than domestic workers themselves due to the quarantine and travel bans. It’s a shift in the employers’ behaviour that were using traditional agencies before," Mahee Leclerc, Hong Kong Regional Manager, HelperChoice told ABS-CBN News.

"When it comes to the terminated contracts, amongst all the applicants, 60% of them had a finished contract, and 13% a terminated contract. Amongst the Filipinos who saw their contracts terminated, 40% were due to relocation, therefore directly linked to the COVID-19 situation," said Leclerc.

Given the impact of COVID-19, the portal aims to fully digitize the recruitment process, including setting up a digital payment solution.

"We are currently looking for a partner to be able to put it in place. We have talked to several e-wallets and payment solutions in Hong Kong already and are now reaching out to the new virtual banks . We would like to launch by the end of the year," said Leclerc.

With Beijing hellbent on passing the national security law for Hong Kong, an expert said he does not see foreign domestic workers being impacted in the long run.

It was in the 1980s when British colony Hong Kong opened its doors to migrant domestic workers. 

"For the moment, I do not see that that will change because we're not talking of Hong Kong sliding down economically. We're talking here of a brain drain," said Dr. Reuben Mondejar, professor of China Globalization at Hong Kong Management Association and at the University of Navarre Business School.

Mondejar believes even if students from the Mainland study or work in Hong Kong, they will still need the domestic workers being a support structure to them. For as long as there will be an opening for people to fend off for themselves, there will be a door for the migrants, he said. 

"It's not like in Europe or in the US, in which there are no foreign domestic helpers. Why? Because for them, the domestic helper will become a citizen after some time because of human rights," Mondejar told ABS-CBN News. "In Hong Kong, they will not become citizens. They will remain to be migrant workers. They are not in danger." 

Puja Kapai, Associate Professor of Law at the University of Hong Kong, noted that the city has had a strong tradition of activist groups that are from the grassroots, with many of them being migrant domestic workers.

"So, I think that if the law is drafted in a way, it also covers those types of social justice advocacy works as being seen as a threat to national security or public security. Then, I do have concerns that migrant domestic workers might be impacted even if they're not participating themselves," Kapai told ABS-CBN News.

Kapai said it's very difficult to say where the line would be drawn, and he sees some migrant domestic worker advocates and activists as potentially "toeing a very fine line" so it also comes down to how it's going to be implemented.

"In so far as we've also seen, the migrant domestic workers' community is very active in a range of spheres. They engage in art, they engage in photography, and you know, activism in their own sort of ways, including large-scale gatherings. It's a part of their expression of their identity and solidarity and a sharing of their experiences in Hong Kong. So, in that sense, I wonder to what extent those kinds of activities would be seen as destabilizing if it is directed at the government," she added.

And with Beijing's growing say in the SAR, the largely Chinese political unrest has pushed discussions on the future of the wider ethnic minority community of Hong Kong to the fringes.

"The main threat that I see with a proposal for enforcing national security law by the means proposed to ethnic minorities in Hong Kong, really comes from reference with the treatment of ethnic minorities in Mainland China," said Kapai. 

The law expert cited particular groups, such as religious and national groups targeted for their activities, which have been built as terrorist activities or activities inciting subversion across the state or offences arguing that people are aiming to overthrow the Chinese communist party -- a similar hyperbole, she said, might be applied with respect to the minority groups in Hong Kong.

In general, Kapai said, the law proposes to apply to Chinese nationals in Hong Kong or at least to permanent residents of Hong Kong. Those who are non-Chinese nationals and who are non-permanent residents, they do not necessarily fall within the purview of what is anticipated under the national security law. 

"However, that said, we know from recent incidents involving, for example, an Indonesian domestic helper who was reporting from the ground during last year's protests, she was denied re-entry into Hong Kong. We also know from the situation of Victor Mallet (Financial Times journalist) who hosted the Hong Kong National Party in the...spokesman was also denied a working permit and denied the possibility of re-entering back into Hong Kong," said Kapai.

"So, we know that there are other tools that can be used through immigration and other existing policies to keep certain people out who are seen to be a threat to national security. So, in that sense, I think that there is no telling how far the reach of this particular law could be," she added.