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Seen as heroes at home, Filipino workers feel 'abandoned' amid Hong Kong's COVID surge

This photo taken on Feb. 20 shows a foreign worker in Hong Kong sheltering with her belongings during the city's current coronavirus surge.
Bertha Wang/AFP via Getty Images
This photo taken on Feb. 20 shows a foreign worker in Hong Kong sheltering with her belongings during the city's current coronavirus surge.

Hong Kong is reeling from the omicron variant that has produced more than a half million new cases of COVID-19 since March 1. Vaccine hesitancy among its older residents has made them especially vulnerable — the vaccination rate among those over age 80 is just a little more than 50%. Densely populated Hong Kong, where residents are often crowded into small living quarters, is now reporting more than 200 COVID deaths a day — a rate of 37 fatalities per million residents, the highest recorded regional fatality rate during the pandemic.

Swept up in the calamity are overseas domestic workers. More than 200,000 Filipinas are employed in Hong Kong as maids and nannies, the largest national group in the Chinese territory.

Among the Filipinas is 36-year old Len-Len, a nickname that she uses. She asked to withhold her given name because she says does not want her family in the Philippines knowing, and worrying, about how precarious her situation is.

Boosted with the Pfizer vaccine in January, Len-Len tested positive for COVID-19 in February. From her boarding house where she now shelters, Len-Len tells us that she's suffered more than health woes.

At the end of a required 14-day isolation period away from the home where she lived and worked, Len-Len says her employer, a young Hong Kong couple with one child, told her: "Time is up. Come pack up your things because you're terminated."

Len-Len, the sole bread winner for her two children and parents back home, begged the husband to relent, but she recalls that the wife angrily shot back: "You [Filipinas] brought this virus to employers like us because you go out and don't take care of yourselves. We're scared of Filipinas like you."

This Feb. 20 photo shows police officers watching as foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong seek shelter from cold weather.
/ Bertha Wang/AFP via Getty Images
Bertha Wang/AFP via Getty Images
This Feb. 20 photo shows police officers watching as foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong seek shelter from cold weather.

"I don't blame them for being scared," Len-Len said. "But her words are painful" — and stigmatize all Filipinos.

Out of work, running out of money

Philippines presidential spokesman Martin Andanar told NPR that President Rodrigo Duterte "was very sad for the plight of our overseas Filipino workers." Andanar invoked successive administrations who have called Philippine migrant workers "heroes." A lifeline for their families, they remit tens of billions of dollars back to the Philippines every year.

Normally, Len-Len would send the bulk of her monthly earnings, the equivalent of $640, to her family. Now, with money borrowed from a friend, she's scrambling to start a small business selling meals she prepares for other Filipinas. She asks, "If we're heroes, why am I in this state?"

The answer saysanthropologist Nicole Constableis "exploitation of labor for cheap cost."

Constable specializes in migrant workers in Southeast Asia and says the predicament of women like Len-Len is "part of a wider, unequal division of labor and a wider pattern of exploitation of mostly women."

Domestic workers in Hong Kong, the vast majority of whom are women, typically work six days a week, cooking, cleaning and caring for children and elderly relatives. They're paid on average $160 a week.

Constable says the women make it possible for both partners of their employer-couple to work and that "their contribution" to Hong Kong's economy is "enormous."

"Hong Kong is making out like bandits. They don't have to open up more retirement centers. They don't have to provide more kindergartens. They don't have to provide all kinds of things that [these] women actually do."

Philippine Consul General in Hong Kong Raly Tejada told NPR that Hong Kong treats "our people better than other jurisdictions" without specifying which ones. "They care for them like they're part of the family," he said. "A vast majority of employers are compassionate."

Varying estimates of how many people got COVID — and got fired

Tejada said he was aware of just "three to five cases" of Filipinas who've been made homeless as a result of getting COVID-19 and getting fired.

But Filipina activists in Hong Kong say that estimate widely varies with what they see on the ground.

Dolores Pelaez leads the worker support group United Filipinos in Hong Kong-Migrante, and has been a domestic worker in Hong Kong for the past 26 years. She says she knows at least 30 women who have been terminated after testing positive. She says hundreds more were made temporarily homeless, evicted from their employer's home after they fell ill from COVID-19.

The reasons for the seeming undercount by Philippine officials are not clear.

Pelaez says minimizing this problem only aggravates Filipinas, many of whom she says "do not trust their government" because it "doesn't give us help in this time of crisis."

Cynthia Tellez is from the Philippines, a missionary who's lived in Hong Kong four decades. She heads two organizations operating on behalf of overseas workers there — the Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants and the Mission for Migrant Workers. She says based on the women who come to her groups for help, 80% of employers felt no obligation to shelter a sick worker. Tellez explains "they do not have an isolation facility in their home" meaning they don't have the ability to keep these women apart from the family while contagious. Many employers would tell the women who tested positive to go quarantine at the hospital — which in turn would tell the women to go home and isolate. Tellez says many of these women, with no roof over their head and nowhere to go, simply encamped on "grounds near the hospital."

"So you can find [women] who are left out in the park sleeping one or two nights already," says Tellez. Among the approximately 600 women in the care of her groups, she says are many Filipinas who have fallen sick – and have gotten fired. "And they feel like they're toilet paper," she says. They feel as if their employers use them when they need them, "but once they get infected the employers say, 'We don't want you anymore.' "

Feeling 'abandoned' but hoping for a better future

Tellez says as Hong Kong authorities expand isolation centers to accommodate some 70,000 additional COVID-19 patients, things are slowly improving.

But for many women whose lives have been upended in the pandemic prospects for the future seem dim, and some talk of feeling "abandoned."

M.B., a 26-year old Filipina, suffered a lingering case of COVID-19. Her employer fired her after she tested positive and deposited her at the recruiting agency that had placed her. (She asked to be identified by her initials lest her job prospects suffer.) When M.B. asked whether her boss was allowed to terminate her contract, she says the agency told her: "It's sort of legal because you do not have a negative test for COVID-19 yet."

But there is nothing legal about firing a worker for getting sick. Under Hong Kong law, an employer who does dismiss an employee for reasons of ill health faces a HK$100,000 fine — about $13,000 USD. The Hong Kong Labor Secretary reminded employers of the sanction, noting that negative reports may cause "a diplomatic incident." The warning was posted on the government website.

Constable says the government appears serious, telling employers, "If you want to keep [domestic help], you better treat them well while they're still here."

M.B., a single mother supporting her young son back in the Philippines, has no plans to bring a claim against her employer. She'll continue sharing a room with her sister at her boarding house, hunt for a new job and rely for food on Migrante, the alliance group helping Filipino migrant

M.B. says she cannot count on help from government services offered through Hong Kong hotlines. They are useless she says because the hotlines are "constantly busy."

The Philippine Consul General Tejada says his consulate is working "around the round clock" to help women like M.B. and that "no one is abandoned." But M.B. says that the Philippine agencies in Hong Kong, including the Philippines Overseas Labor Office as well as the Consulate, did nothing but pass her from one office to the next.

However, one Filipina, who asked to be identified by her initials "F.N." to spare retaliation from her employer, might be one of the lucky ones. The same woman who fired her from her job as a housekeeper has invited her back. That was after F.N. was forced to spend the night near a bus stop outside Queen Mary Hospital in Hong Kong where her employer had ordered her to go isolate but the hospital was full. "There was a bench there. So I stayed there overnight," she says. "No sleep for that night." The next day the group HELP for Domestic Workers, a charity that says its staff and team of volunteers has assisted "hundreds of thousands" of overseas workers since 1989, rescued F.N. and put her up in a small hotel. She says without their help, she would not have been able to navigate the Philippine bureaucracy, which has promised to dispense $200 USD to women who can prove they are in distress.

Avril Rodrigues, head of communications for HELP, says the change of heart on the part of F.N.'s employer may have nothing to do with the threat of a fine. She says since the start of the pandemic there's been shortage of overseas domestic help, and it's more likely employers who rehire a fired domestic worker are looking to avoid waiting months to find a new recruit. Rodrigues says at least a dozen women under HELP's care have been asked to return to their job. With responsibilities to families back in the Philippines, Rodrigues says they feel they have little choice but to go back to their work.

"They want to send money and they don't want to waste their time filing" a labor claim, she says. "So a lot of them are also considering going back to the same job to the same employer who effectively pushed them into homelessness for so many days when they were not well"

Asked if she's happy about returning to her old position, F.N. quietly sidesteps the question. "I'm happy," she says, "that I'm now COVID-free."

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Corrected: March 17, 2022 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly gave the age of Len-Len as 29. She is 36.
Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.