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Migrant Women in Hong Kong SAR, China Share Stories of Struggle Amid the COVID-19 Disruption

Eka Rahmawati received cash assistance from IOM. Photo: IOM Hong Kong SAR, China

Eka Rahmawati received cash assistance from IOM. Photo: IOM Hong Kong SAR, China

25 October 2022, Hong Kong SAR, China - Eka Rahmawati, a former Indonesian domestic worker in Hong Kong SAR, China, was deeply saddened, when in March 2022, she received news that her COVID-19 test result was preliminary positive. She cried the whole night before entering the government community isolation facility for 7 days.  

“I was despondent not because I was contracting the virus, but because I would have missed my hearing at the Labour Tribunal that I had been waiting for years," the 32-year-old Eka recalls, who had been waiting for her criminal and civil court cases against her former employer who physically abused her since 2019.

Eka came to Hong Kong SAR, China at the age of 22. Like most women engaged in labour migration as domestic workers, Eka left her country for economic reasons. Intending to help the family have a better life, Eka followed the broker who came to their house to offer a job as domestic worker in Hong Kong SAR, China. Unfortunately, everything did not happen as she expected.  

She was paid less than the minimum wage as stipulated in her contract. The employer confiscated her passport, employment contract, and Hong Kong ID card, and installed CCTV cameras inside the house to monitor her movements and ensure she does not leave the house without permission. Even worse, she was constantly physically assaulted by her employer, employer’s husband, and employer’s mother. After six years experiencing abuse and ill-treatment, Eka ran away from the employer's house and sought help from Christian Action Centre for Migrant Domestic Workers—a local NGO who was also one of IOM partners to provide direct assistance, including cash support, to migrant workers impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Eka Rahmawati with other migrants received cash assistance from IOM. Photo: IOM Hong Kong SAR, China

Eka Rahmawati with other migrants received cash assistance from IOM. Photo: IOM Hong Kong SAR, China

"I was delighted to receive cash support from IOM, as I did not have any money after escaping from my former employer’s house. I used the cash to pay for my local transportation, and monthly internet package, and sent the rest of the money to my family,” Eka says.

Hong Kong SAR, China is one of the most popular city destinations for migrant domestic workers to seek employment. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and travel restrictions, the number of migrant domestic workers in the city had decreased to 339,451 in 2021 from 399,320 in 2019.  

To combat COVID-19, the government tightened social distancing restrictions and temporarily closed government offices and public services.  

The adjournment of court hearings and case appointments at government institutions is one example of how the COVID-19 has caused discomfort, and stress for the migrant domestic workers, like Eka, who are temporarily homeless and jobless .   

To respond to the direct needs of Eka and other migrants who are pursuing court cases, IOM provides cash assistance and in-kind support such as return and reintegration through the regional remediation fund programme. In addition, IOM has also partnered with four local NGOs and one union federation in Hong Kong SAR, China to provide various support for migrants during the COVID-19 pandemic, including the provision of basic needs allowance, relief items, and trainings. The support from IOM is part of the Corporate Responsibility in Eliminating Slavery and Trafficking initiative’s regional multi-stakeholder project funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA). 

In a similar plight, Lilian (name has been changed to protect identity)* from Sri Lanka  tested positive for COVID-19 in March 2022. Lilian, who suffered from diabetes and needed regular medication, has been jobless since December 2020. When she came back to her last employer’s house after a hospital appointment, Lilian found all her belongings   on the streets. The employer didn’t pay the rest of her salary, and wages in lieu of termination notice, along with other benefits that she was entitled to.

Lilian walks in the park in Hong Kong SAR, China. Photo: STOP

Lilian walks in the park in Hong Kong SAR, China. Photo: STOP

"I was sad because I have never done anything wrong. I serve with my heart. I don’t deserve this termination. In my 40-years’ experience working in Hong Kong SAR, China as a domestic worker, I have never expected to be treated badly,” says Lilian.

After losing her job, Lilian reached out to STOP, a local NGO, for legal advice and support. When she tested positive for COVID-19, Lilian didn’t have enough medicine. The relief items and medication, as well as the cash assistance provided by IOM helped her to secure her livelihood and also seek remedy for what she deserved. 

“I valued IOM and STOP to accompany me during the toughest time of my life. I am grateful for all the support given to me, including the cash assistance and relief items,” says Lilian.

Away from their homes and loved ones and compelled to live with their employers, migrant workers have borne the brunt of less desirable treatment amid the pandemic. Upon testing positive for COVID-19, migrant domestic workers often found themselves abandoned, fired from their jobs or stranded as they could not return to their home country. This left many homeless, and without a job. They had limited access to healthcare, no regular income and couldn’t afford private hospitals. 

Angilyn was about to return to her home country, the Philippines, when she got the dreaded news that she had tested positive for COVID-19.  Queuing up at the public hospital was an exercise in futility. She was told to undergo quarantine at home, yet she had no home to go to.

Angilyn(3rd from left) with other domestic workers in the shelter. Photo: HELP for Domestic Workers

Angilyn(3rd from left) with other domestic workers in the shelter. Photo: HELP for Domestic Workers

Angilyn spent the next two nights sleeping in a park at Yau Ma Tei. Her life was in limbo. Living in the park at the mercy of the harsh cold and rain, Angilyn felt abandoned, rejected and lonely.  

“I have been through the worst situation in my life not having a place to sleep, food to eat and no medicine when I was sick,” Angilyn says.

Angilyn, a single mother to three children, had moved to Hong Kong SAR, China as a domestic worker to earn a living and support her children’s education expenses. Unfortunately, during her employment, she suffered back aches as she was forced to sleep on the floor in the small laundry room with storage boxes. Fed up with the intolerable living conditions, Angilyn quit her job and decided to go home to the Philippines. 

Angilyn was rescued by a local NGO HELP for Domestic Workers (HELP) and placed at a shelter. Angilyn’s challenges were drawn out as she continued to test positive for COVID-19 three times before she could fly back home. Not being able to go back home, losing her source of income, and fear, Angilyn feel dejected and anxious. With the support from IOM through the partnership with HELP, she continued to receive shelter and medical support, as well as cash assistance. 

"Over two months, the shelter, cash assistance and medical allowance from IOM provided critical support when I was facing extreme hardship. These resources helped me to fulfil my basic needs and improve my well-being," Angilyn says.

Finally, after two months, Angilyn was reunited with her family. “I am happy now that I am with my family and I feel so much love.” Angilyn says. “I want to tell all my migrant sisters to be strong and courageous, soon things will get better for all of us.” 

The story was written by Christian Action, STOP, and HELP for Domestic Workers for IOM Hong Kong SAR, China sub-office    

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the International Organization for Migration (IOM).



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