Hong Kong’s domestic helpers have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, with the Philippine consul general revealing that 70 of them lost their jobs recently and his Indonesian counterpart warning of sanctions against unscrupulous employers and recruitment agencies.
Philippine Consul General Raly Tejada told the Post on Friday the consulate had assisted 70 displaced Filipino workers between February 9 and March 25, some 93 per cent of whom were affected due to the relocation of their employers.
Tejada, who did not offer any comparative figures, said the consulate had helped “in settling outstanding money claims and securing air tickets from employers for those intending to return home. Around 32 have found new employers, while 38 have returned to the Philippines.”
There are nearly 400,000 domestic helpers in Hong Kong – mostly from the Philippines and Indonesia.
Indonesian Consul General Ricky Suhendar said domestic helpers should take notice of the Labour Department’s advice on Friday, which asked them to refrain from gathering in public places and stay home on rest days, while also maintaining social distancing where possible.
“We also communicate closely with agencies and employers to stress the importance of supporting domestic helpers and maintaining their good health and welfare,” Suhendar said. “If they do not obey the regulations of Hong Kong and do not maintain communication between the consulate, agencies and employers, we will impose some sanctions. This is very serious advice from us.”
The heaviest sanction includes revoking agencies’ accreditation. Agencies in Hong Kong cannot recruit Indonesian domestic helpers without accreditation from the Indonesian consulate.
Tejada called on all Filipinos in Hong Kong to stay home “whenever possible in the next two weeks”, as the city battles a new wave of Covid-19 cases.
He also urged employers to respect the rest days of helpers if they choose to stay home.
A recent online survey of 1,127 domestic helpers found more than half claimed they worked more in the past month than at any other time.
Of the helpers surveyed, 40 per cent said they had not left their residence at all over that period.
The poll was conducted online by the Asian Migrants Coordinating Body with the support of the Mission for Migrant Workers and the Asia-Pacific Mission for Migrants, between March 8 and 10.
Shiela Tebia-Bonifacio, the chairwoman of Gabriela Hong Kong, an organisation that supports Filipinos in Hong Kong, has raised concerns about domestic helpers not having proper accommodation. She said helpers were often sharing rooms with members of the household they work for. It added that the helpers needed to go out of their house on rest days or risk exhaustion.
“Proper space to rest is a basic need, but many migrant domestic helpers sleep in the living room or kitchen. How can you perform your duty if you cannot have proper rest?” Tebia-Bonifacio said.
The Philippine consul general called on domestic helpers to report any violation by employers.
“The consulate considers the suitability of accommodation as an integral part of an employment contract that all employers have the responsibility to uphold,” Tejada said.
Three more Filipinos in Hong Kong have recently tested positive for Covid-19, bringing the total number of infections in the local community to 16. All are being treated in hospitals.
The virus has infected more than 536,000 worldwide and killed more than 24,500. Hong Kong recorded its highest ever daily tally of 65 cases on Friday, bringing the city’s infection total to 518.
The Philippine consulate said it was in close contact with the Filipino patients.
“The Philippine government stands ready to provide some financial help, about US$200 to cover their needs after recovering from the disease,” Tejada said.
The Hong Kong government on Friday imposed social-distancing measures, including limiting public gatherings to four people, to combat the spread of the virus.
Tebia-Bonifacio , a 35-year-old Filipino domestic helper, said migrant workers’ organisations regularly conducted public health and hygiene education workshops, including asking workers to wear a mask.
“We will observe social distancing among ourselves,” she said.
Suhendar admitted the social-distancing move by the government would not be popular among domestic helpers, who mostly spent their rest days outdoors.
“I know this will impact domestic helpers significantly. But we need to sacrifice for some time, so all Hongkongers can get out of this crisis,” he said.
The Indonesian consulate gave away 223,320 masks to its citizens in the city, and the Philippine consulate made a similar move.
Dolores Balladares-Pelaez, chairwoman of the United Filipinos in Hong Kong, said several helpers who were in quarantine in their employers’ houses were still being asked to work.
“They do not go out, but that does not mean they do not work,” said the 50-year-old, who has lived in Hong Kong for 26 years.
Lucinda Pike, executive director of Hong Kong-based charity Enrich, which promotes economic empowerment of migrant domestic helpers, said if the helpers were unable to go out on their rest days, they would not be able to send money back home.
“One woman told us ‘we will not die of the virus, but our family will die of hunger if we do not send them money’,” she said.
Hong Kong’s migrant domestic helpers last year contributed an estimated US$12.6 billion (HK$97.7 billion) to the city’s economy, representing 3.6 per cent of the city’s gross domestic product, according to a report. Pike said domestic helpers were providing an essential service at a time of crisis and faced high risks.
“We know there are doctors and nurses in hospitals, but there are also 400,000 migrant domestic helpers here who are fulfilling care duties … If there are elderly people who cannot leave their homes because they are serving quarantine orders, the domestic helpers are with them, providing necessary care. What happens if they cannot provide that?”
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