As Hong Kong struggles to recover from a Covid-stricken year, one of its most vulnerable groups is bearing the brunt of the restrictions and frustrations created by the pandemic.

HKFP spoke to some of the domestic workers from the Philippines and Indonesia who are required by law to live in their employers’ homes and offer almost 24/7 care to numerous middle-class families. They talked about life under Covid and the increasing challenges they face.

Domestic Workers under Covid-19
Eni Lestari, chairperson of the International Migrants Alliance. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Some employers are pressuring domestic workers to stay home on Sundays, their sole day off, for fear of bringing the virus back with them after they go out to meet friends. Pro-establishment legislator Elizabeth Quat even proposed a lockdown on domestic workers during their holidays, a suggestion rejected by Secretary for Welfare Law Chi-kwong.

Arni, a 36-year-old Indonesian, told HKFP she had only been out around ten times since March 2020, after her employers told her they would not take responsibility if she became infected when away: “I told my employer that I want to have my holiday outside, but my employer told me that if I take my day off outside, there will be those viruses – and if I get infected, they won’t take responsibility,” said Arni.

“Sometimes I do feel stressed because I cannot see my friends,” she added. “And I am worried about my family in Indonesia, and I had to send more money back home because of the pandemic.”

Eni Lestari, chairperson of the International Migrants Alliance and spokesperson for the Asian Migrants’ Coordinating Body, said migrant domestic workers were suffering harsher working conditions during the pandemic.

Domestic Workers under Covid-19
Calls from the migrants’ group for better protection of migrants’ rights. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

“In general, even before the pandemic, the treatment of migrant domestic workers was not that good,” said Lestari. “Although we have very basic rights, the majority of our conditions are unregulated.”

She said foreign domestic workers often face long working hours, usually ranging from 12-16 hours per day. Other issues include a lack of food which is supposed to be provided by the employer, and sub-par accommodation.

Lestari said workers often find it difficult to bring up complaints under the current reporting system.

“The access is very difficult; for example, they don’t open on Sundays,” she said. “Second, they don’t have different languages, and we can only talk very fluently in our language, sometimes even Chinese or English is very limited.”

She said the burden of proving a complaint often falls on the victims, and the main part of her organisation’s work was helping migrant workers in filing complaints.

Since the pandemic, the situation has worsened for many domestic workers, said Lestari.

Domestic Workers under Covid-19
Ega, who has been working in Hong Kong for 10 years. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

“The most common thing is the denial of holidays. They are really complaining about not being given their days off, some even for weeks, a few even for months. So we have to teach them how to bargain with the employer.”

For Arni, negotiating with her employer did not work: “I tried telling my employer that I want to have my day off, but they told me that they would not be responsible if anything happens. That’s why I stopped asking.”

Apart from being denied days off, according to Lestari, migrant workers have been hit with increasing physical, mental, and financial pressure amid the pandemic.

Domestic workers face even longer working hours and less rest time. Some must use their own money to buy facemasks and sanitising products when bosses fail to provide them.

Ega, who has been working in Hong Kong for ten years, said that in addition to losing her days off sometimes, she must buy her own facemasks. At the start of the pandemic, she used over HK$1,000, a quarter of her monthly salary, to buy five boxes from Indonesia.

Domestic Workers under Covid-19
Achi, who resigned from her previous employer because of ill-treatment. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

“I have been using this same mask for three days,” said Ega. “My employer said then that facemasks were very expensive, that’s why he would not give them to me.”

Apart from reusing masks, Ega now sometimes gets free masks from migrant workers’ associations. On top of buying her own protective gear, she must also send more money back to Indonesia for her three sons.

Achi, who has been in Hong Kong for a year and three months, resigned from her previous job after 13 months because of ill-treatment.

“My employer was not good… I had to wake up and start working at 6am and could only go to bed at 11pm,” said Achi. “She would physically push me sometimes, and once I hurt my shoulder and I wasn’t allowed to see the doctor.”

Achi was not allowed to go out on her day off and often her employer failed to compensate her for working during her holiday. She had to sleep on the living room floor.

Sometimes when Achi was allowed out, to spend her free day in a park near her employer’s home, she was told to take photos to prove where she was. She stuck it out longer than she intended as she had to pay HK$3,300 a month for half a year to the recruitment agency after she first arrived.

Domestic Workers under Covid-19
Achi, who resigned from her previous employer because of ill-treatment. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

“I hope that the Hong Kong government can tell employers to treat us like human beings,” said Achi. “And ask employers to ensure there’s enough food and rest time for us.”

Puja Kapai, associate professor of law and convenor of the Women’s Studies Research Centre at University of Hong Kong, said the pandemic had intensified existing problems for migrant domestic workers.

“I think it’s very important, when we’re talking about communities which are experiencing particular challenges during Covid, to think about whether these are new challenges or whether this is simply an amplification of pre-existing challenges under the Hong Kong system,” she said.

Kapai said the requirement that domestic workers live with employers, the relative lack of space and of adequate rest, and the sole day off per week, were deep-rooted issues in Hong Kong.

Domestic Workers under Covid-19
Hong Kong police officers enforcing social-distancing rules on Chater Road, Central on a Sunday. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

“What we’re seeing is, Covid is letting us see these pre-existing problems in a very different light. And if anything, I think that people have really pushed hard to almost suggest that it’s okay to control this particular group of working folks, because their rights aren’t as important as the rest of us.”

When they do manage to leave home on their days off, domestic workers can face further hassles. The Labour Department and police have been active in patrolling areas such as Chater Road and Victoria Park, where the workers gather in large numbers on their days off, to enforce social-distancing rules.

“This kind of tendency, now that we see, where the police and labour department officers are keeping watch in areas which are known to be areas where migrant workers will congregate on their day off – that is a form of heightened policing of migrant workers’ bodies,” said Kapai.

Domestic Workers under Covid-19
Labour Department, Immigration Department, and Hong Kong police officers enforcing social-distancing rules on Chater Road, Central on a Sunday. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

“And the only reason they’re gathering there is because they know that domestic workers tend to come there on their day-off because they have nowhere else to go.”

It appeared that domestic workers were more likely to be fined than many others who were also breaking the rules but were overlooked by police, she said. It’s “quite blatant.”

Dolores Balladares, chairperson of United Filipinos in Hong Kong, said that migrant workers face even greater discrimination during the pandemic.

“They [police officers] treat us like virus-carriers, the discrimination is very overt,” said Balladares. “We think it’s singling [us] out. We’re actually calling for inclusion, for an inclusive society, that the Hong Kong government should recognise.”

Domestic Workers under Covid-19
Dolores Balladares, chairperson of United Filipinos in Hong Kong. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

For years, Balladares and Lestari’s organisation have been fighting for better protection of migrants’ rights, including more support from the government, a livable wage and regulation of working hours.

However, Lestari said the lack of official action essentially pitted employers and domestic workers against each other, even though migrant workers often filled gaps in the social care system for Hongkongers which the government had failed to address.

“They [the government[ are actually making the two victims fight each other.”

Correction 8/2: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Dr. Puja Kapai was an assistant professor of law at the University of Hong Kong. She is associate professor of law and convenor of the Women’s Studies Research Centre at HKU.

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Candice is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously worked as a researcher at a local think tank. She has a BSocSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester and a MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics.