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Mimi Ysulat flew home to the Philippines for her mother’s funeral at the end of January. By the time she was ready to return to Hong Kong, where she’s worked as a maid and nanny for the past decade, she got another dose of bad news: in response to the coronavirus outbreak, the Philippine government had banned travel to the city, along with Macau and mainland China.
Now the 48-year-old Ysulat is stuck in the Philippines for the foreseeable future, along with thousands of migrant workers, mostly women, who make up Hong Kong’s domestic labor force. “Helpers,” as they’re called, are critical to both economies. Having full-time, live-in childcare enables hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers — mostly women — to work outside the home; the money helpers send home to the Philippines contributes to more than $30 billion in remittances that comprise about 9% of the country’s gross domestic product.
With the coronavirus still spreading, there’s no telling when these women might be able to return to the families and households that rely on them. They’re worried they’ll lose their jobs, their income and their work permits. In a survey of more than 900 Filipina domestic workers in Hong Kong by placement agency HelperChoice, almost half said they were affected by the travel ban or knew someone who was.
Meanwhile, with Hong Kong’s schools, community centers and nurseries closed for another four weeks at least, families with absent helpers are scrambling to manage their own jobs in a childcare vacuum. “[Helpers] are actually integral to Hong Kong. Without them, the local community will not be able to go out and work,” said Edwina Antonio-Santoyo, executive director of Bethune House Migrant Women’s Refuge, a charity that has been operating in the city since 1986. “There will be no one to take care of their children, take care of the elderly or to do the household chores.”
Antonio-Santoyo is barely exaggerating. Like day cares and creches elsewhere in the world, migrant maids and nannies are critical to Hong Kong families, particularly those with children. By law, helpers earn a minimum of HK$4,630 ($596) per month, a not-unreasonable expense for two adults each earning Hong Kong’s median wage of HK$17,500.
About 11% of Hong Kong households employ a domestic worker, a ratio that jumps to 30% among married couples with children and 43% when both parents work. The government credits the ready availability of foreign domestic workers with the rising labor force participation rate for female citizens as well.
Yin Lo, a primary school teacher and mother of a three-year-old, said her helper got stuck in the Philippines after attending her daughter’s wedding and visiting her convalescent mother. She was flying Cebu Air Inc., which has halted flights to Hong Kong at least through the end of March.
“If I wasn’t able to work from home, I don’t know what I’d do,” said Yin, who like most teachers hasn’t been required to go in during the closings, though lots of schools are still giving students assignments and online lessons. Her husband works in the financial industry and has been going into the office every day.
Like Ysulat, who hails from a village 350 miles south of Manila, many domestic workers come from rural parts of the Philippines. Earlier this month, the country’s Labor Department announced that it would offer financial assistance and temporary housing to workers who’d gotten stranded in the capital en route to their jobs overseas.
In the first week of February, more than 2,500 workers had collected the offered stipend of 10,000 pesos ($196)—about one-third of the minimum monthly salary for a helper in Hong Kong. With the flight cancellations extended through March, there may be as many as 15,000 Hong Kong workers stuck in the Philippines, according to Alfredo Palmiery, who leads a trade group of recruiters who help place Filipinos in Hong Kong households and elsewhere.
If workers can’t return to work, their contracts and visas could be cancelled, Palmiery wrote in a letter to the governing board of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration. “Most of the departing workers have already traveled from the provinces to Manila and have already incurred expenses, some of which they only borrowed,” he wrote, highlighting the families that depend on remittances.
The Philippines will reconsider its travel ban on migrant workers to Hong Kong in the next two weeks, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin wrote on Twitter Feb. 15: “Time to allow our domestic workers to return to their employers in Hong Kong. Eagerly awaited. HK has better facilities to contain virus.”
Ysulat is among the relatively lucky ones. Her employers have said her position is safe and that they’ll continue to pay her. The problem, now, is collecting her salary. She gets paid in cash, which she typically sends home through a remittance service; her family claims it from a local pawnshop. She doesn’t have a bank account to receive a wire transfer from her employers.
For now Ysulat’s family will rely on the money her husband makes as a rickshaw driver. If she can’t get back to work soon, she said they’d have no choice but to borrow from friends and neighbors to make ends meet. “I was just finished paying down my old debts,” she said. “And now I have to take on new ones. I’m back to zero again.”
The travel ban has also affected workers on the Hong Kong side of the South China Sea. After 32 years as a maid and nanny in Hong Kong, Virgie Iniego was ready to go home on Feb. 7. Chemotherapy to treat throat and nose cancer left her with kidney damage, and she needs biweekly dialysis.
Two days before what was supposed to be her final flight to Manila, the Philippine government suspended most incoming travel from China, Hong Kong and Macau. As a Philippine national, Iniego’s not banned, but she might as well be: Philippine Airlines canceled its flights through the end of March.
“I really want to go home to be with my family,” said Iniego, whose two sons live in Imus City on the outskirts of the capital. Her husband died a few years ago. “I am old and sick, and I want to be with my sons.”
Not far from Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila, the Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration converted a conference center into a sprawling help desk for stranded migrant workers. On Feb. 13, nearly a week after the government announced the travel ban, roughly a hundred people stood in line. They brought documents to prove their identity and employment abroad, and their tickets for their now-cancelled flights. In return, they got a stack of cash.
It’s the third venue the welfare agency has commandeered since the restriction took effect, first tapping a shopping mall and then a sports complex to handle the volume. Some of the workers have come straight from the airport after being turned away at the check-in desks, their bags still in tow, taped up and ready for their big move.
Last week, Dina Andales collected her stipend. She’d been traveling to a new position, and she wasn’t sure her employer would be willing to hold her job. Andales decided to stay in Manila — it would cost half the 10,000 peso allowance just to get back to her province, and the remainder wouldn’t cover the month’s expenses for her and her parents. The government says the travel ban is a protective measure, but Andales, at least, didn’t appreciate it.
“We need to eat every day, and I’m not going to earn any money staying here [in the Philippines],” she said. “If I had a choice, I would rather just fly to Hong Kong. I can just stay indoors all the time to keep myself safe from the virus.”
— With assistance by Andreo Calonzo
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