Janice Obiang stifled sobs as she packed goods to send to the Philippines, gifts for loved ones she hasn’t seen in years as life for domestic workers in virus-hit Hong Kong goes from bad to worse.
Few have suffered more during Hong Kong’s pandemic restrictions than the hundreds of thousands of women, mostly from the Philippines and Indonesia, who work as domestic helpers.
As an international financial hub, Hong Kong relies on the so-called “helpers” to cook, clean, run errands and even raise children for the city’s local and expatriate business population.
Foreign workers also feature in Hong Kong’s retail, manufacturing and construction sectors.
And as the city reels under its most severe coronavirus wave to date, many are now at breaking point.
“I really want to move, I really want to have vacation,” Obiang said, as a police officer with a megaphone gave regular reminders for people not to gather in groups.
“But I don’t have a choice, we need to stay,” the 36-year-old told AFP, adding it had been four years since she went home. “We really miss our family.”
Urged to Stay Inside
There are about 340,000 foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong, down from 400,000 when the pandemic began.
Paid a minimum of HK$4,630 ($590) a month, they work six days a week and must live with their employers, in a city that offers some of the world’s smallest apartments.
While the work is tough, it pays more than the women can earn in the Philippines, allowing them to support families as key breadwinners.
But the pandemic has made a hard job even harder. The government has taken to advising Hong Kongers to keep domestic workers inside during their one day off.
Jec Sernande, from the Federation of Asian Domestic Workers Unions, said many domestic helpers do not even have their own rooms.
“Sitting for the whole day in the kitchen or in the living room – that is not a rest,” she said.
Police have also stepped up fines — the equivalent of one to two months’ salary for a domestic worker — for breaching the current ban on any more than two people gathering in public.
Unionists like Sernande have long campaigned for better working conditions and are angered by the lack of compassion shown by authorities and some employers during the pandemic.
“They need to get more recognition, because they contribute a lot to the society and the economy,” she said.
- AFP, with additional editing by George Russell