Working as Migrant Domestic Workers under COVID-19 doubles the penalty
Author: Camille Bethoux, Head of Programs at Uplifters
[Chinese Version available, please select “Chinese” as website language]
1.6 million Filipino and Indonesian women live abroad , approximately a quarter of them are in Hong Kong and Singapore . In Hong Kong alone, there are more than 380,000 migrant domestic workers. That’s 10% of the working population . Through their remittances, they also create value for their home countries. In fact, 10% of the Philippine’s GDP was attributed to personal remittances in 2018 . This represents a very high portion of the migrant workers’ salary : 72% of domestic workers use their income to pay for their family’s daily necessities, 65% use their income to send their kids to school and 35% use it to buy or build a house . In the end, very few migrant workers save for their own future and most end up returning home after years of work with little savings and insecure futures. Furthermore, whilst more than half of the prospective migrant workers expect to have a good life in Hong Kong or Singapore before leaving their home country , many of those who’ve already migrated have experienced some form of rights violation while living abroad. In total, 77% of migrant workers returning home reported indicators of forced labour, in other words, ¾ experienced one form or another of modern slavery . Migrant workers do not always know their rights and when they do, they still need to find the courage and support to speak up and defend themselves.
This is the big picture, with its vertiginous figures; making us feel the situation is as sad as it is uncomfortable for us to feel we could do anything. So let’s take a closer look.
For a few minutes, please step into the shoes of a migrant domestic worker in Hong Kong or Singapore. You are originally from the Philippines or Indonesia and you had to migrate abroad in order to provide for your family that you left behind. It’s emotionally taxing and the financial pressure that you face doesn’t make it any easier. You, your family, your community, and also your employer needs your migration journey to be successful. But there are so many pitfalls on your way. Unethical agencies, loan sharks, scammers, but also unscrupulous friends or even family members trying to take advantage of you. But even without that, your everyday life is pretty challenging. Think about what it takes to live and work in a foreign country when this is not really a choice, to listen and speak a language that is not yours, to face a heavy workload with only one day off a week, and to try to meet your unfamiliar employers’ expectations.
You basically spend your daily life adapting in order to keep your head above water and to meet other people’s expectations.
Then COVID-19 hits.
Once again, because you belong to that underprivileged community, you’re hit harder than others. Some will say that thanks to this ability to adapt, which you have exercised and solidified over the years, you’ll be fine. Here comes another chance to grow your resilience even more after all. Well, maybe not. Maybe you’re tired, very tired and need support. Or at least some form of acknowledgement that it’s hard, very hard.
Let’s see why this is so hard.
Work more with less leeway
The recent COVID-19 turmoil has caused an additional workload with more members of your employer’s family staying at home. You also need to adapt to new schedules and a working environment that has changed since now your boss is always home with you (for those who work in Singapore which has been on lockdown). Both you and your employer may be stressed, which makes it hard to express your needs. It becomes harder than ever to find solutions that are fully fair to all parties, all the more if you live at your employer’s house and your livelihood depends on them. Most likely, the compromise falls on you in the end. You try hard to stay positive, communicate, and set healthy boundaries that could help relieve a bit of the weight of these compromises. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The power imbalance is just too imbalanced.
New limitations to your rights
As a result of the pandemic, your employer might be asking you not to go out nor meet your friends on your day off, as long as the risk of infection is present, even if the city you live in is not under lockdown. This fear of infection is legitimate and of course, you want to take health precautions for yourself and your employer’s family. This is your job to care for others and you want to do that well.
But in Hong Kong, the law provides 24 hours of uninterrupted rest and this holds true until the law changes. You live in somebody’s house and want to preserve the relationship (and your job!). For your mental health, you feel that you need to go out to walk your stress away. You too might feel extra stress because of the pandemic and you’d appreciate being able to actually rest on your single day off. Resting is key to being able to process one’s own anxiety and feeling recharged enough to perform one’s job well, hence keeping it. If you don’t get the rest you need and that you are entitled to, you’re trapped. Your labour and movement rights are violated and you are scared of losing a job you can’t accomplish well precisely because of what the job demands of you.
Sometimes, not only you are being asked to stay home but also to work on your day off. In Singapore, employers are allowed to pay domestic workers to work on their day off while it is not allowed in Hong Kong. Again you might understand the situation requires extra work and you are willing to help. But you also feel you need to be paid for this extra work, especially at a time where you have the responsibility to help your own family deal with the pandemic. Either mutual agreement can be found and this works well for you or you are not being paid accordingly and you start experiencing what modern slavery is.
Feeling stressed for and by your family
You are also likely to feel stressed for the health of your own families and also face additional financial pressure to support them as their countries go into lockdown. First, you try to stay informed and avoid fake news which is already challenging for everyone in these times where unchecked and false information can spread quickly. For you, it’s even harder because you may have limited access to information due to possible restrictions on your phone and data usage by your employer. Also being able to differentiate an opinion from a balanced and factual view of any topic is not a given. Navigating information about COVID-19 requires critical thinking and digital literacy. In the absence of that, you are more likely to receive confusing and misleading information and put yourself or your loved ones at risk. Although some may feel the amount of reliable information about COVID-19 has been largely spread to marginalised groups by supporting organisations, interrogations remain. Below are some of the questions that were asked by the community at Uplifters’ last Antivirus Facebook live episode with Doctors Without Borders as guests.
- Is it true that drinking alcohol can help kill the virus?
- Are we stronger and can we better fight the virus by eating ginger?
- I am concerned because part of my job is to walk my employer’s dog and I am not sure whether or not pets can catch the virus and transmit it to us.
- My employer’s family keeps going out and I am the one in charge of washing their clothes. Am I at risk when I do so?
The fear is always here, rooted. Even after these four months since the epidemic started, you feel overwhelmed by the unknowns. The anxiety is also caused by this irreducible daily reality that you have to walk the dog and wash others’ dirty clothes. You fear for yourself and you fear for your family whose moves you can’t have any control over.
Now, this same family you love and fear for and who loves and fear for you can also be a source of pressure. Remember, their livelihood depends on your salary. So again, the common financial challenges most people will face under COVID-19 are worse off for you.
83% of domestic workers in Hong Kong are in some level of debt. One of your biggest worries is how you’re going to make your monthly payments now when you or your family’s sources of income could potentially be cut off. You’re likely to feel the stress of diminishing income and how you’re going to pay for your needs and your family’s daily needs because they can’t get to work or can no longer get work.
Over 83% of Uplifters’ students don’t have any savings set aside in case of emergencies. Your family may find themselves running out of cash flow during this time. While they need more upfront cash, your own limited freedom of movement might impact your ability to send them remittances as usual. For example, you might not be able to leave the house to send your family extra money for groceries to stock up on for essential foods and supplies to hold them over during the lockdown period.
And as if that was not enough, your employer may similarly be facing financial struggles themselves. They may have to terminate your contract. It’s not a good time to be unemployed for anyone. But for you it’s not even an option; complications with visa and contract processing are taking forever at the moment.
It’s hard to keep your morale up
There is no doubt that all these uncertainties and challenges faced by all are amplified for underprivileged communities. And as it does with everyone, this situation may take a toll on you at some point. The situation is constantly developing and the information about COVID-19 remains incomplete, which is complexifying a situation that is already difficult when you don’t have proper access to information or lack the ability to make up your own mind over what you hear. Because you work and very often live at your employer’s home and face increased restrictions of your personal freedoms, you might experience an even higher level of loneliness and isolation.
We all know coping with COVID-19 has become a mental health issue for many. You’re not an exception, far from it.
That’s the end of your immersion in a domestic worker’s life. Most of us now feel that Hong Kong is getting over the pandemic. Yet, migrant domestic workers will continue to be severely impacted. COVID-19 has highlighted the important care services gap that they fill in our societies. We need to stay mindful of the challenges they face and go through COVID-19 as an inclusive society.
 Seefar – Modern slavery in Asia, 2016
 Experian & Enrich – The value of care, 2019
 Seefar – Making migration work, 2019
 Findings from the 366 respondents of the Uplifters’ Beginning of Course Impact Survey distributed to our April and May batches.
Uplifters is a non-profit organisation whose mission is to help migrant domestic workers transform their lives and make their migration successful by unleashing the combined power of online education and community support. The vision of Uplifters is to empower underprivileged communities to build the lives they want for themselves.
More about Migrant Domestic Workers [Chinese Only] ▾
More about COVID-19 and human rights [Chinese Only]▾