A domestic worker’s life during the pandemic - How Covid19 affected the labour workers Hong Kong
Valerie C. Yap
PhD in Asian and International Studies
Life under COVID-19 is not getting any easier for the approximately 370,000 foreign domestic workers (FDWs), mostly from the Philippines and Indonesia, living and working in Hong Kong (HK). Even though the city did not go into any lockdown, compulsory social distancing measures by the government and imposed restrictions by employers have taken a toll on the migrant domestic workers’ mental health and well-being. As live-in workers, the pandemic has further increased their workload and working hours, largely due to employers and their families working and staying at home, and in keeping the house even cleaner to combat COVID-19.
The effects of the pandemic can be seen in the various news articles and studies that have reported on the experiences of FDWs who are coping with COVID-19 related stress and anxiety (Yeung et al., 2020). Anecdotal stories shared with me last August 2020 include worries over their personal health. FDWs say that they are trying their best to stay healthy by taking enough vitamins, doing self-care, and being “strong and careful at all times” so as to avoid contracting COVID-19. The biggest stressor is the fear of job loss or termination. News articles have reported on unfair termination of FDWs who were fired because: they got ill, they insisted on taking their rest day, or they got stranded in their home countries due to COVID-19 travel restrictions and were unable to return to HK on time (Han, 2020; Lumicao, 2020; Summers, 2020). Reading these kinds of stories creates pressure on the part of the FDWs to safeguard their jobs as much as they can, especially as they are supporting families in their home countries. As one 53-year-old Filipino female worker shared, “since COVID-19, my children (back home) lost their jobs so I support them all now and my mother. I worry how I can help my family when COVID-19 continues. What would happen if I lose my job due to COVID-19?” “The anxiety is also always there”, said another 46-year-old Filipina worker, especially knowing that their jobs are also dependent on their employers who “may also lose their livelihoods or expats will return to their respective countries”.
The mental stress extends to the disruption of their usual social, religious and economic day-off activities. Foreign domestic workers are entitled to one rest day a week and this break is a time for them to get away from their employer’s home. It is a time for them to relax, unwind and recharge. Day-offs are used in multitude ways. A number of migrant women would attend religious community activities as well as face-to-face training and workshops on their rest day, but due to COVID-19, such activities have been halted or migrated virtually. Excursions and gatherings with fellow domestic workers are occasions for social interactions. However, the pandemic has made it challenging for them to meet-up because employers have either prohibited them or limited their time to go out on their day-offs for fear that workers might bring the virus back home. It also does not help that the HK government releases press statements that “appeal” and “urge” FDWs to “comply” and stay at home on their rest days (The Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, 2020a, 2020b and 2020c) and have been policing them with fines for non-compliance of social distancing measures, a move that is not strictly carried out with the local population. This singling out is not only a show of double standards but also discriminates against FDWs who are being portrayed as potential carriers of the virus and therefore, must be policed.
How have FDWs been coping during this pandemic? Social media have provided social and emotional support. One other 45-year-old FDW who is part of an arts group shared that they usually have free art workshops at the park, but because of the pandemic, they “give group challenges to members” and that they “get together in group chats for meetings and planning activities”. Picking up new hobbies, taking online courses and doing arts and crafts have been some of the ways that FDWs try to cope with the pandemic. For some migrants who are active in their church groups, they go online to attend prayer groups, Bible studies and religious services while churches are closed. Other FDWs have relied on Facebook as a community support platform where migrant worker groups, NGOS and country consulates, would share reliable COVID-related information. Others take a more active role in mobilizing themselves to help other domestic workers who have been affected by the pandemic, whether they were terminated, stranded or are in quarantine. This kind of work was featured in a YouTube short documentary called Ayuda (The Janalist, 2020) that follows a group of Filipino domestic workers as they go around the city helping other domestic workers during the pandemic. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ad9NUrU776M&t=2s).
These kinds of online activities have alleviated, to a certain extent, the FDWs’ feelings of anxiety and loneliness but with the on-going pandemic, more has to be done. FDWs remain largely excluded from Hong Kong society despite the work they contribute. They were already vulnerable to abuse and exploitation before the pandemic, but COVID-19 must draw our attention to the underlying problems that have persisted under Hong Kong’s domestic worker arrangements and the urgent need to address the lack of mental health support for this specific group.
I’m Valerie, from the Philippines but currently based in Hong Kong. I work as a project associate at a public university and am a trustee for CARD HK Foundation that provides financial literacy and skills training workshops for domestic workers in Hong Kong.
 According to Lui et al. (2021), the HK government has released over 15 press statements related to this kind of appeals to employers and to FDWs in 2020.  Ayuda in Filipino means assistance or help
Han, A. (2020). 'Alcohol baths, reused masks, and lonely Sundays: Hong Kong domestic helpers feel ‘singled out’ amid coronavirus outbreak', SCMP, 5 February.
Lui, I. D., Vandan, N., Davies, S. E., Harman, S., Morgan, R., Smith, J., Wenham, C & Grépin, K. A. (2021). “We also deserve help during the pandemic”: The effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong. MedRxiv, 2021.03.04.21252889. https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.03.04.21252889
Lumicao, V.B. (2020). 'Over 30 DHs fired as scare grips HK amid Covid-19 spread', The Sun Hong Kong, 17 February.
The Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. (2020a, December 4). Labour Department reminds foreign domestic helpers and employers of tightening of social distancing measures by the Government [Press release]. Retrieved from https://www.info.gov.hk/gia/general/202012/04/P2020120400708.htm.
The Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. (2020b, March 27).
Labour Department again appeals to foreign domestic helpers to refrain from gathering and crowding in public places [Press release]. Retrieved from
The Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. (2020c, January 30). Labour Department encourages foreign domestic helpers to stay home on their rest day [Press release]. Retrieved from https://www.info.gov.hk/gia/general/202001/30/P2020013000428.htm.
The Janalist (2020, September 5). Ayuda [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ad9NUrU776M&t=2s.
Summers, H. (2020). ‘Day off denied: how Covid confined Hong Kong’s domestic ‘helpers’’, The Guardian, 15 December.
Yeung, C.L., Huang, B., Lau, C., & Lau, J. (2020). Feeling Anxious amid the COVID-19 Pandemic: Psychosocial Correlates of Anxiety Symptoms among Filipina Domestic Helpers in Hong Kong. International journal of environmental research and public health, 17(21), 8102. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17218102.