Hong Kong domestic helpers abandoned as COVID takes its toll

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  • Some have been laid off or left homeless after positive COVID tests
  • 340,000 domestic helpers in HK, have to live with families
  • Philippines urges Hong Kong to protect migrant domestic workers

HONG KONG/MANILA, Feb 28 (Reuters) – A rapid spread of COVID-19 cases in Hong Kong has shed light on the plight of domestic helpers in the global financial hub after some were laid off or rendered homeless by their employers when they tested positive for the coronavirus.

Hong Kong has about 340,000 domestic helpers, mostly from the Philippines or Indonesia. Many families in the city depend on caregivers for housework and to care for the elderly and children, with the minimum wage set at HK$4,630 ($593) per month.

Under Hong Kong law, migrant domestic workers must live with their employers, often residing in small rooms or sharing bedrooms with children in their care.

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Reports from support groups and local media of these workers being evicted or fired have sparked calls from Philippine authorities for the Chinese-ruled city to protect and support domestic workers.

The Hong Kong Federation of Asian Domestic Workers Unions told Reuters last week that it had received more than 20 cases of domestic workers who had tested positive for COVID dismissal.

The Hong Kong Labor Department has warned employers that firing infected people is an offence. People who break the law could be fined up to HK$100,000.

In an emailed response to Reuters, the department said it would investigate any wrongful dismissals.

“The government is calling on the employer to show compassion and consider providing…(caregivers) paid sick leave,” he said, adding that employers should also provide “free accommodation and adapted as well as free medical care”.

Two domestic helpers who said they were abandoned by their employers and left on the streets after testing positive for COVID told Reuters they felt helpless and traumatized by the experience.

“DEPRESSED, HOPELESS”

“I was depressed, desperate and anxious because I’m in a foreign country,” said one of the aides, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue. She said her employers gave her medicine but told her to leave their home and find a safe haven to stay in, so as not to infect the family.

“All I thought about was where to find food and where to find accommodation because it was very cold outside,” said the woman, who has worked in Hong Kong as a domestic helper since 2005.

The other aide, who has been in Hong Kong for four years, said she felt discriminated against and would now rather return to the Philippines than stay in Hong Kong.

The two helpers found refuge with HELP for Domestic Workers, a non-governmental organization that provides shelter and basic supplies to people in need.

“At the moment supply is not keeping up with demand. And given that there are so many mandatory test notices, so many people testing positive, we are unable to find isolation facilities for everyone,” said Manisha Wijesinghe, executive. director of HELP for domestic workers.

As the government scrambles to contain the COVID outbreak, Hong Kong authorities have banned flights from nine countries, including the Philippines, and tightened entry restrictions, leading to a shortage of domestic helpers.

Many domestic workers work long hours and are only allowed one day off a week, when they typically congregate in city parks and open spaces.

Hong Kong’s public hospitals have been under heavy strain, struggling to cope with an influx of COVID patients, including the elderly, many of whom have resisted vaccinations.

Since the outbreak began, Hong Kong has recorded more than 171,000 coronavirus infections and more than 650 deaths, far fewer than most major cities.

Health and isolation facilities are overwhelmed, with the government scrambling to build new units to cope with a surge in cases.

“I was sitting in a taxi rank waiting for information on where I could go. I said to myself that I had to stay strong, I am alone and I have no help. But by then I was already in tears. said one of the two housekeepers, recounting her experience. ($1 = HK$7.8142)

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Reporting by Sarah Cheng, Adrian Portugal and Joyce Zhou; Written by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Karishma Singh and Mark Heinrich

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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