‘If there was no COVID-19, I would go home’: the plight of pregnant domestic workers stuck in HK

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Alexandria*, 26, gave birth to a healthy baby girl.

In a nondescript Hong Kong flat, Alexandria*, 26, is nursing her newborn. The infant’s cheeks are plump and the face kind, as if she isn’t perturbed by the number of people in their temporary shelter.

In the living room, two other Filipinas are listening to a teleconference on a Macbook. The speaker is teaching them how to handle their finances. In the room adjacent to Alexandria’s, a string of colorful balloons hangs above the ceiling—remnants of an earlier birthday celebration of the newborn child of an Indonesian migrant worker.

Almost everyone temporarily staying in this three-bedroom flat is a domestic worker who is either pregnant or a new mother. This flat, which houses five beds, is run by non-governmental organization PathFindersHK, an organization geared towards helping migrant worker mothers and their children.

According to Alexandria, she did not think she would get to this point, where she will be giving birth amid a global health crisis.

“Sobrang laking tulong sa’kin kasi wala akong magpatirahan nang ganito, na maging safe kami ng baby ko,” Alexandria said.

[Translation: It’s been a big help for me since I don’t have a place to stay like this, where my baby and I will be safe.]

The new mother just found out about her pregnancy on Mar. 3 during a doctor’s checkup. But when she asked for help from the father of her child, the father flat-out refused.

“Noon kasi, ang isip ko lang is trabaho. Trabaho lang ako nang trabaho. Tapos, nagka-boyfriend ako. Tapos hindi ko balak na mabuntis ako. N’ung nalaman ko, bakit ko ginawa ‘yun?” she added.

[Translation: Before, I was just thinking about work. I was just working and working. And then I had a boyfriend. And I didn’t expect to get pregnant. When I found out, I thought, “Why did I do this?”]

Pregnant domestic workers have a bevy of issues to confront when giving birth in Hong Kong. Although it is legal for any employed woman to get pregnant in the city, the costs of childbirth are expensive. Compared to the HK$4,630 minimum monthly wage, pregnancy expenses for non-eligible persons can go from HK$39,000 to HK$90,000.

Employers do not cover pregnancy and childbirth expenses, but FDWs also have maternity leave rights.

To help with the expenses, Alexandria sought help from a government social worker.

“Sa ganitong sitwasyon ko, parang, marami pang kailangan iprocess para sa mga anak ko,” she said. “Walang tutulong sa akin.”

[Translation: In this situation, I think there are many things I still need to process for my child. No one will help me.]

Sarah*, a first-time mom at 41, felt the same. She did not expect to be a mother at her age especially with her polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), but her relationship with a fellow worker here in Hong Kong bore fruit.

But when Sarah’s employer knew of her pregnancy, the employer’s attitude shifted. She told her employer to terminate her employment since she knew she would not be able to fulfill her duties as well as before her pregnancy. Instead, Sarah was given more work.

“Four months pa lang, malaki na [ang tiyan ko] kaya nahirapan akong mag-akyat baba [ng bahay]. Araw-araw ‘yan, tapos hindi pa ako pinapalabas,” Sarah said.

[Translation: Four months in, my stomach was already huge so I had difficulties going up and down the house. But that was an everyday chore, and I couldn’t even go out.]

Because she was not let outside due to the threat of COVID-19 infection, she was only able to go to the doctor four months into her pregnancy. Eventually, she quit because the workload continued to get heavier, and she was not being fed properly.

Sarah had wanted to go home to her hometown in the Visayas region to give birth, but all flights to the Philippines were canceled following the surge in COVID-19 cases in the country.

“Kung wala sana ‘yung COVID, walang problema, kasi talagang uuwi ako,” she said. “Ayaw ko ring magtagal dito nang ganito, kasi siyempre hindi natin lugar ‘to.”

[Translation: If there’s no COVID, there wouldn’t be a problem, because I will really go home. I don’t want to stay here for long like this, because this isn’t our place.]

It also did not help her that her fellow domestic workers and other people have hurled negative comments at her during her pregnancy. Sarah said it compounded her stress, as she already worried over where to source her and her child’s expenses as well as the cost of giving birth overseas.

Many domestic workers are forced to leave their employers or are being illegally terminated by their employers due to their pregnancy, according to PathFinders.

After the two-week rule, these pregnant domestic workers become more vulnerable since their working visa helps them access public services such as prenatal care.

The PathFinders shelter has provided them these mothers a much-needed space, and the organization has also helped shoulder these domestic workers’ needs for childbirth. Since the shelter opened in 2012, it has helped 331 moms and children.

Oher domestic workers’ dormitories make use of bunk beds for pregnant women, with each bed costing HK$50 to HK$60 a day.  PathFinders’ shelter avoids the double-deckers, in order to minimize the chance of harming soon-to-be mothers.

The three rooms in the shelter and a kitchen are shared among five tenants, as well as their offspring. The kitchen enables them to cook food to ensure nutrition since they can now prepare meals which are a far cry from canned goods and employers’ leftovers. On top of these, the tenants are given coupons.

This has become possible through the donations PathFinders has gotten for their advocacy. But Hong Kong’s political climate as well as the current health crisis has affected their fundraisers. They had to cancel a dinner which was supposed to raise at least HK$3 million to help fund their programs.

For now, PathFinders has begun with its campaign Listen to Her, a series of narrations from domestic workers staying in their shelter.

Kuma Chow, the organization’s communications manager, said they hope to be able to raise HK$600,000 to cover the expenses, so they could help more migrant workers like Alexandria and Sarah.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the individuals.