On April 4, Children’s Day in Hong Kong, a newborn baby girl was found dead next to her mother, a foreign domestic worker who had slipped into a post-delivery coma at her employer’s home. The employer’s family said they had no knowledge of the pregnancy. Tragically, this is not an isolated incident.
In 2017, a domestic worker was sentenced to a year behind bars for abandoning the body of her stillborn in a public toilet after giving birth at her employer’s home, overcome by fear her employer would find out. She was charged with infanticide until an autopsy report confirmed the baby bore no scars or wounds.
Despite her hard work to send monthly remittances to the Philippines for her elder daughter, the prosecution alleged she had caused the baby’s death by “a willful omission to provide proper care”, suggesting a very different character.
These mothers at a time of suffering terrible loss, often receive judgment instead of condolences. Those involved in such tragic infant deaths are themselves victims of inadequate maternity protection and a lack of awareness of their maternity rights.
Most of them are society’s underdogs who, coming from poorer backgrounds, received little if any family planning and maternity rights education. When pregnant, many are terrified to tell their employers for fear they will be terminated or forced to resign and become homeless overnight, losing vital income to support family members at home, and — within two weeks — access to public healthcare when their work visa expires.
Although maternity protection exists to protect all female workers in Hong Kong from being fired due to pregnancy, there is still a prevailing and common misconception that a domestic worker who becomes pregnant during her contract term is in breach of her contract.
Due to a fear of repercussions, many pregnant domestic workers therefore try to conceal their pregnancy. Without seeking help, some end up having very risky unassisted home births at their employer’s address. The death rate of assisted home births is three times higher than hospital deliveries, and unassisted ones are even riskier. Others resort to illegal abortions, dumping the fetus in the trash or a public bathroom.
According to the Fourth Report of the Child Fatality Review Panel published by the Social Welfare Department, between 2006 and 2015 concealment of pregnancy caused a total of 37 cases of child deaths, 16 of which involved domestic worker mothers.
What can we do to stop these preventable deaths? First, we need culturally and linguistically appropriate family planning and pregnancy rights education for all domestic workers.
Moreover, we need clearer policy guidance on how a domestic worker’s pregnancy and maternity leave can be managed successfully for the employer, domestic worker and the child.
The fact that the live-in rule applies during maternity leave taken in Hong Kong is problematic for domestic workers, not to mention for their employers. Employers presently face a lack of economical, win-win options.
This has unfortunately left some employers frustrated and helpless, pressurising them to end the employment contract with their pregnant domestic worker- which sadly perpetuates the unhealthy cycle of unlawful termination and the crisis of children born to domestic workers in Hong Kong.
PathFinders is actively working with various partners to explore practical solutions, such as the feasibility of having a relief domestic worker to cover the duties of the domestic worker who is on maternity leave.
At PathFinders, we bear witness to the tremendous bravery of pregnant domestic workers seeking help. We hear stories of heavily pregnant domestic workers pushing elderly employers in wheelchairs uphill, or carrying heavy luggage which may have led to their babies being born prematurely or with birth defects.
Most domestic worker mothers work until the day of giving birth. One of our beneficiaries going into labour needed to flag down a minibus in the middle of the night alone and bleeding to get to a hospital.
These are incredibly hard-working women. They make a significant and valuable contribution to our economy.
The laws in Hong Kong are in place to protect these women’s maternity rights. Yet in reality, they come to us at their most vulnerable in desperate need of shelter, food and clothes, guidance to navigate unfamiliar healthcare and legal systems; and still, they fight for a fair start for their babies.
Without systemic change, we risk having these mothers and babies gravitate toward tragedies. No child should be left behind and no pregnant woman should suffer the way many pregnant domestic workers do in Hong Kong. With 16 preventable infant deaths already, let’s act before any more happen.