When the global pandemic reached Hong Kong, the once busy streets in Chater Road became quiet. Domestic workers were not allowed to go out and were forced to work longer hours, including Sundays, as their employers were working at home. Others had their contracts arbitrarily terminated.
By ANNE MARXZE D. UMIL and JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
CHATER ROAD, Hong Kong – The rapid beeping sound in the Central pedestrian lane does not seem to end. People have places to go and errands to run. For many Filipinos, all roads lead to Chater Road and its nearby streets.
It is a Sunday morning. For most Filipino women domestic workers, it is a time to rest after a week of hard work and sleepless nights.
They spread rugs and flattened carton boxes along the street, nearby footbridges, in an open space of the building of a big Hong Kong bank and parks as they share food and stories. Some set up a mobile karaoke using their phones on a small tripod, singing their worries away. There are also Filipino migrant workers seeking help to get overseas employment certificates they need to return to Hong Kong. The noise offers solace for Filipino migrant workers there, with the cold December breeze lulling them to sleep.
At a small corner along Chater Road surrounded by the luxury brand outlets, Eva Gallardo Samson, 67, sits beside other women migrant rights advocates. “Next year I will be coming home for good,” Samson told Bulatlat, adding that she was recently hospitalized.
Hong Kong has indeed become a microcosm of the feminization of labor migration in the Philippines. The government’s own data showed that from the early 1990s, the number of Filipino women leaving the country to work abroad has continued to increase.
This was around the time that Samson, now 67, decided to leave her husband and five children to work as a domestic workers in Hong Kong. Her husband’s income as a musician during the 1980s was not enough for their family’s growing needs.
Back then, Samson worked as a contractor in a printing press, earning through a pakyawan system where workers are paid by piece. Various labor groups have criticized this practice for being exploitative.
Samson took advantage of the months leading to the resumption of classes as there was a high demand for books. She worked more than eight hours a day, including Sundays, even if she got paid a measly P3.00 per book. “If you have gathered a few books, you will also get a lower pay because there is no basic salary,” Samson said.
With her older sister Nancy working in Hong Kong as a domestic worker, she mulled the idea of working overseas. “It is all about luck whenever you try to find a good employer, right? This convinced me to go to Hong Kong.”
But this was not without the pain and uncertainties of leaving behind her children. Her youngest Melody Reina, whom she fondly called Melo, was only three years old at the time. “It was painful because I cannot take care of them until they get older. But I do not have a choice either. I have to work. This is for them too.”
Thirty years and three employers later, Samson found it bittersweet to be reunited with her youngest Melo. Because this time, they are both working for the same employee in a land far away from home.
Feminization of labor migration
For the past 30 years, government data show a continuing increase of women opting to work overseas. Compared to their male counterparts, they are often deployed in domestic work or in the service sector which migrant rights groups said is vulnerable to gender-based violence and low wages.
The government’s push to send more Filipino women to work abroad facilitates their recruitment and deployment in countries where domestic workers are considered in-demand, particularly in the Middle East.
Under former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the government came up with a “supermaid” program which would supposedly train Filipinos seeking domestic work abroad to command a higher pay. This, however, was assailed for the government’s failure to generate meaningful jobs in the Philippines, not to mention the risk of deploying them in dangerous workplaces.
In 2019, the United Nations International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women said that as women become their respective families’ economic providers, labor migration could increase their self-esteem and personal autonomy. But this should be balanced with the multiple forms of inequality and discrimination that they are facing which is more intense than their male counterparts.
Global trends show that governments who send their female citizens to work abroad are likely to earn more from their remittances. This was a key finding in a 2016 study published by IZA World of Labor, an online platform dedicated to providing relevant information on labor issues. This study revealed that women migrant workers send higher remittances than men as they “tend to stay linked to and sacrifice more for the family back home, thus adding to the reliability of their remittances.”
During the pandemic, a 2021 survey of the Hong Kong-based Mission for Migrant Workers (MFMW) showed that more than half of Filipino migrant workers in Hong Kong sent more money to their families back home by 1,500 HKD ($193) or more monthly to help them cope with the impact of COVID-19 (40 percent) or due to job loss of family members (39 percent) and increased educational expenses (39 percent).
This was the case even if 75 percent of respondents reported experiencing financial difficulties, particularly increased expenses in Hong Kong ranging from 100 HKD ($12) to 1,000 HKD ($128). “Most of them got their extra money by reducing their personal expenses in Hong Kong or taking a loan from financing companies (both 40 percent). Others borrowed money from friends (31 percent). Almost 70 percent think that their monthly salary is not enough.”
In Samson’s case, she continues to work and send remittances to her children in the Philippines, ignoring the strong advice from her doctors to stop working. In October 2020, she underwent a major surgery as doctors found a tumor in her bladder. She now wears a stoma bag for life, the cost of which accounts for more than 10 percent of her monthly salary, or 600 HKD ($76) out of 4,600 HKD ($586).
Samson said that she is forced to continue working abroad due to the debts her family incurred in the past years. They had to borrow money because they lost most of their belongings to typhoon Ondoy in 2009 and her late husband had medical expenses, suffering a stroke twice before passing away in 2019.
Her daughter Abigail, 41, was also diagnosed with lupus and is often rushed to the hospital. Her eldest Janice, 43, meanwhile tested positive for COVID-19 in 2021, and the cost of her hospitalization ballooned to P130,000 ($2,238). All their remaining savings, she said, were spent on her hospital bills.
“I want her to come home and stop working. She has given us so much already so maybe it’s time that we return the favor and help her,” Melo told Bulatlat.
Determined to carry on the big responsibility of providing for her family, finding work in the Philippines was not an option for Melo. Her plan to work in South Korea, which her mother opposed, did not prosper though.
When Samson’s employer came looking for a caregiver, she referred Melo. This time, at least, they would be together in a foreign land. Melo, for her part, saw it as an opportunity to also look after her mother.
In the last quarter of 2022, Samson said that she was once again rushed to the hospital. “I was told that with my condition, I should not be working. So I will be coming home for good next year.”
Poor working conditions
Samson spends her day-off volunteering for MFMW to help migrant workers with issues like contracts and overseas employment certificates.
While she has no problems with her employer, she said many OFWs are in dire working conditions. “There are domestic workers who were arbitrarily terminated by their employers and they have no place to go.”
The Filipino community in Hong Kong calls this “pinababa” which would usually happen at night, leaving domestic workers in distress and without a place to sleep.
The MFMW is an organization that helps distressed OFWs in Hong Kong. If they need shelter, they are referred to the Bethune House and other similar sanctuaries.
Cynthia Tellez, MFMW’s general manager, said that there are many cases of contracts being terminated from 12:00 a.m. to 4:00 a.m. “Sometimes there are domestic workers who are sleeping in the church where the walk-in center is located. Security guard would tell me, ‘Cynthia, someone needs your help.’ That means someone slept in the garden near the church.”
Migrant rights defenders in Hong Kong have demanded that employers be held accountable if they arbitrarily terminate contracts of domestic workers, especially in the middle of the night.
There are also domestic workers who have no decent accommodation in their employers’ households. A report by MFMW titled “The Continuing Problem of Unsuitable Accommodation for Migrant Domestic Workers under Mandatory Live-in Arrangements” showed that domestic workers are forced to sleep in toilets, storage rooms and motor mechanic stores. Some also reported that there are closed-circuit television (CCTV) installed in areas where they sleep, an invasion of their privacy.
Mitch (real name withheld upon request), 40, is experiencing the same with her current employer. “They have things in my room and they go there to get their things every day, whenever they want. They don’t care if I’m sleeping. I can’t have a decent rest.”
This explains why many domestic workers in Hong Kong take their rest day at Tamar Place and Admiralty footbridge, among other places where they can pitch a tent or spread cardboard boxes. They lie down and take quality rest, background noise notwithstanding.
Worsening working conditions
When the global pandemic reached Hong Kong, the once busy streets in Chater Road became quiet. The situation was depressing, according to Annabelle Maregmen, 47, a domestic worker in Hong Kong for the past 23 years. “It was sad because we cannot go out.”
During those days, she said that they were forced to work longer hours, including Sundays, as their employers were working at home. Others had their contracts arbitrarily terminated.
Maregmen said that she was somehow in a better condition because her employer allowed her to spend her rest day outside their residence two weeks after the Hong Kong government implemented restrictions.
“I asserted that I will spend my day-off outside the house. My employer is kind, which is why she also agreed. I also assured her that I will keep us safe from the virus,” she said, adding that she was the first in the house to have COVID-19 vaccination.
Maregmen has been working with her employer for more than a decade. She takes care of their special child which she said had become close to her.
Maregmen was actually taking education during college when she decided to stop and help her parents in sending her siblings to school. When she left the country for Hong Kong, she initially planned to come home after two years, the expected time that her siblings would graduate from college.
More than two decades later, she remains working in Hong Kong.
A 2021 survey conducted by the MFMW showed that 70 percent of the 1,046 respondents reported increased stress and anxiety, half of them experiencing body pains and one-fourth of them reporting depression.
MFMW added that 72 percent of complaints they received in 2021 were working 11 to 16 hours a day while 27 percent of complaints pertained to working for more than 16 hours.
A little more than half of them reported working on their supposed rest days while 45 percent worked on statutory holidays.
The stay-at-home order in Hong Kong, along with the ban on public gathering, kept domestic workers from having a day off, according to Dolores Balladares Pelaez, chairperson of United Filipinos in Hong Kong (Unifil-HK).
“We have sacrificed so much. Many of us were not able to go out even on Sundays and work longer hours which were not compensated by our employers. Many of us also were not able to visit our families in the Philippines,” Maregmen said.
The Hong Kong government also imposed strict restrictions on public gatherings. This carries a fine of 5,000 HKD ($642), higher than the minimum monthly salary of a domestic migrant worker (4,700 HKD or $514).
“There are some domestic workers who are asking for assistance because they were fined,” Pelaez said.
There was a donation campaign launched to help domestic workers to pay the fine but the Hong Kong government, through its labor department, said it may be “suspected of abetting a crime.” Those who launched the campaign reportedly stopped the initiative and returned the funds they collected to their donors.
Maregmen added that there were instances where an entire building got tested when a domestic worker was found to be COVID-19 positive. But the same was not done when a Hong Kong national later tested positive. This is because domestic workers were then seen as spreaders of the dreaded virus, Pelaez said, adding that they also did not receive any aid during the first and second wave of COVID-19 in Hong Kong.
The discrimination against migrant workers during the global pandemic was also observed in many countries. In many hospitals and health facilities across Europe and North America, Migrante International Chairperson Joanna Concepcion said that migrant workers working as doctors, nurses, caregiver and housekeeping, among others, were assigned to wards where they have higher chances of contracting the COVID-19 virus. “That can be considered as a form of violence in the workplace, especially since a lot of health workers contracted the virus and died of COVID-19. Filipino workers were usually assigned to (COVID-19 wards).”
Concepcion said this is a systemic discrimination and racism that has long been happening among health workers but was exacerbated by the pandemic.
There were also crackdowns against undocumented Filipinos. Concepcion shared that in South Korea, undocumented Filipinos were unable to buy face masks because they need to present identification cards upon purchase. “This is a simple health protocol. But governments are still regulating it based on one’s status.”
In the US, Karen Roxas, 30, vice president of National Alliance for Filipino Concerns (NAFCON), experienced how a fast food company disregarded workers rights during the pandemic. “There was no protection at all. All they gave us is one mask with their logo. We also have no way of finding out who among the employees are positive. The manager also didn’t tell us. We will just know through group chat that one of our colleagues is COVID-19 positive.”
She used to work in a fast food chain. She said that they were overworked and understaffed, forced to work double-time as many branches shut down and the company became dependent on overseas revenues. “Fast food chains here are still operating during the height of the pandemic because many people are ordering food online and drive-thrus.”
The manager also mistreated its crew. She said that the manager yelled at the crew members and forced Roxas to work even if she was sick. The manager also monitors them even if not on duty. “There was an instance when we left the back door open because we were taking the canned pineapple juice inside, she suddenly called and asked why it was open. She was not in the restaurant that night.”
Five months later, Roxas left the said fast food chain after the manager did not approve her sick leave application.
Meanwhile, the Philippine government has not ratified the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention No. 190 or ILO C190. This is the first international treaty to recognize the right of everyone, including migrant workers, to a world of work free from violence and harassment, including gender-based violence and harassment.
If ratified, Philippine government will be mandated to put in place policies and necessary laws to prevent and address violence and harassment in the world work. It will benefit and protect not only Filipino workers in the country but also those who are working overseas.
Despite the attacks and difficulties that Filipino migrant workers and their families had to endure, they still pushed back and gained small victories along the way.
In Hong Kong, Filipino migrant workers managed to continue voicing out their concerns through protest actions online and offline, even when there were restrictions on public gatherings. They have done this by holding programs along Chater Roads initially in tandem and later by 12 when the Hong Kong government eventually relaxed their rule.
The Hong Kong government also increased the minimum allowable monthly wage for foreign domestic workers by 2.2 percent in September 2022, from 4,630 HKD ($595.41) to $4,730 ($608.27).
The food allowance was also increased by 23 HKD ($2.96) from not less than 1,173 HKD ($150.85) to not less than 1,196 HKD ($153.80) monthly.
Maregmen, currently vice chairperson of Gabriela-Hongkong, said they also raised awareness on COVID-19 through the campaign “Fight COVID,” the latter being a recursive acronym for COVID, Overwork, Vulnerability and Discrimination.
They also continued to demand better services from the Philippine consulate in Hong Kong. “We went to the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) office here but we were not given assistance. They only provided care packs.”
Care packs were good but this was not what they needed the most back then, Maregmen said. “Many of our kababayans lost their jobs because their employers also lost theirs. There are cases where domestic workers are only sleeping on the sidewalk because they have no place to go.”
Pelaez, on the other hand, said that Filipino migrant workers complained of not receiving COVID-19 cash assistance from the Philippine government. She said that it was only in November that they finally received 1,318.95 HKD ($169.64) or less than P10,000. This even had to be fought for, she said. “We will always stand for the rights of the migrant workers. We will not back down.”
Finally going home
Even if the promises of labor migration fell short for Samson and her family, she still finds time to advocate for her fellow domestic workers. On Sundays, she would continue to assist them, particularly now that they are having difficulties securing their overseas employment certificate which they need to return to Hong Kong.
Samson would leave Chater Road at around 6:00 p.m. This is enough to reach her employer’s house, where she is expected to be back on or before 10:00 p.m. Behind her, other younger Filipino domestic workers would stay behind, making the most of their rest day. “I am going home for good,” she told Bulatlat.
It is bittersweet, however, that her daughter Melo would stay and continue to work in Hong Kong for the next few years. She also hopes to be able to move to another country and continue building the life that her mother envisioned for her family back in the Philippines.
This story was funded by the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development – Media Fellowship on Migration and Migrant Women’s Human Rights.