Antivirus Episode #6

Hi everyone, I am Jenely, Uplifters Community Building Officer. I am with Camille, Head of Programs for Uplifters. 

Uplifters is a non profit organization dedicated to empowering underprivileged communities with online education and peer support. We offer a free online money management course for domestic workers. You just need to click “ Send Message” on our Facebook page to enroll. 

This is the sixth episode of our Antivirus series and we are very happy to be here with you tonight. These are challenging times for all of us and especially for our community.

Our objective with this Antivirus Video Live is to reply to your questions if we can or collect them and consult with professionals afterwards so we can answer them later. We are happy to come together as a community and provide comfort to each other in these difficult situations, we will go through it together. Uplifters is first and foremost a community and we will go through these difficult times with you.

We are very happy to have Mr. Danilo Andres Reyes from Help for Domestic Workers as our guest tonight. The mission of Help for Domestic Workers is to aid and support domestic workers and help them gain access to justice and receive fair and equal treatment. In 2019, they celebrated their 30th Year of providing advice, assistance and education to over 100,000 workers.

Danilo completed his Master of Laws in Human Rights  at the University of Hong Kong (HKU). He is a former deputy director of the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), a Hong Kong-based human rights NGO. Before coming to Hong Kong in 2005, he was a journalist for various newspapers in Mindanao, the Philippines. He is finishing his PhD on Asian and International Studies (AIS) at the City University of Hong Kong (CityU). He is a recipient of research fellowships, academic and community service awards in Canada, South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Thank you very much for joining us tonight, Danilo. We appreciate it. Your advice and guidance is very important to us. 

Question: Covid-19 has greatly impacted domestic workers. What are the specific challenges faced by migrant domestic workers as a result of the pandemic?

Danilo: I think this special episode is very timely and we can also respond to urgent needs and the current challenges that domestic workers in Hong Kong and Singapore are facing. Before I proceed with the question I would like to orient all the workers who are listening and watching right now. As a background before we have gone to coronavirus, we had 6-7 months of protests which also had impact on workers from June to December 2019 and we learned about the coronavirus early in January. So many of the workers were caught unaware of what to do not only them but also the government including the policies that have been existing so the coronavirus which began to emerge in January really exposed foreign domestic workers to more abuse and vulnerability. The existing policies and protections that we know, have suffered shock. It did not really respond to the need that workers have at the moment. What are the challenges? Some of the challenges that we have identified are job insecurity, many of the workers suffer loss of employment as a result, loss of income and uncertainty also in the labor market especially in Hong Kong because there had been protests and unrest before that and now the coronavirus. 

In early January we have already observed the emerging trends in which domestic workers have been terminated by their employers because their employers also lost their jobs so those are the challenges. When it comes to termination of workers the challenges come to four or three folds that complicates. In the old days if you are terminated you can easily go to the Labor Department, file your claim and proceed with the hearing and the trial and you can easily access the shelter. But when the coronavirus emerged those things are very difficult to access. First you can’t file a claim because the labor relations division is closed or the  labor tribunal hearings are suspended and the shelters from the early stage have limited space until such time that their capacity has been exhausted. They are full and there also concerns of outbreaks in clusters inside heavily congested areas. Those are the indirect effects of losing your job, inability to file complaints and then you also can’t access these support services that should have been working before the coronavirus. 

Those are issues in Hong Kong. When the outbreak emerged as a later pandemic, we also experienced cross border issues. In mid February or early February we have heard about workers who are unable to return to Hong Kong from the Philippines because of the travel ban by the Philippine government and many of the workers have also been terminated because they fail to come on time on their expected arrival in Hong Kong from their holiday so those are the initial cases. Termination which involves cross border problems. If you are outside Hong Kong you can’t file a claim at the Labor Tribunal so we had to deal with cases of workers who are in the Philippines so we tried to assist them should they come back to Hong Kong when they decide to claim they can do that. As the coronavirus becomes a pandemic now we encounter workers who were terminated  because their employers had gone to other countries, relocated and some of the employers who were on holiday during the Chinese New Year could not come back to Hong Kong because they were stuck because of these travel restrictions from different countries. Many of the issues have also emerged like whether or not they will be paid while their employers are away, how can they terminate their contract while their employers are stuck in other countries and when the employers come back whether they will be included in quarantine because the employers might also infect the worker. As the conditions deteriorate, the spread of coronavirus and the intensity of it escalating the third problem now is when the host country Hongkong and the country where these workers come from like the Philippines and Indonesia they also impose their own lockdown so many of the workers even if they want to go back to their countries they could not because domestic flights are suspended until May 16 in the Philippines. They got stuck in Manila with no money. Those are the challenges even in Indonesia and also in Sri Lanka, the flights are suspended. No inbound or outbound flights. 

The latest challenge is the structural shock in Hong Kong. Issues emerging whether or not domestic workers are allowed to go out on their rest days because of fear of contracting coronavirus when they come back into their employer’s house and whether or not employers can do that. Those are issues which were not previously discussed in detail. There are a lot of gray areas emerging especially the quarantine rules, who will pay for the cost and whether when the employer comes from abroad whether the worker will be included in quarantine or not.  

Most especially these existing live in rules, we all know that domestic workers are not allowed to live outside their employer’s house but with this coronavirus it exposes the vulnerability of the workers at the same time the policy that exists may not be suitable at the moment. Those are the immediate challenges that domestic workers are facing today. 

Question: What has your organization been doing to help them in relation to these specific challenges?

Danilo: Our organization also has to adapt. In our office we have four full time staff, four involved in case management and case work. In the past we have face to face interviews with clients but we also have to adapt. We shift to flexible work arrangements. We do remote work. We shift to communications to WhatsApp and telephone. Although we limit our engagement by face to face interviews our Sunday clinics are still open and are supported by qualified volunteer lawyers from law firms in Hong Kong especially the Asian Bar Review. The idea is to make sure that even though we might not be able to provide in person service the workers in need of assistance can still communicate to us. We make that access to us available and we also have an online database with client records in which we can identify tailored intervention for each case. The moment we see this phenomenon emerging in early January we developed a quick monitoring data in which we identify the patterns. Each client has her own issues and concerns.  We developed a monitoring system in which we identify the issues that concern each client. That would enable us to develop a tailored intervention to cases.

Question: Does identifying trends help you in return to better respond to each specific situation? 

Danilo: It helps us to see the trends, frequency for instance we can identify quickly how many of these clients have been terminated arising from this coronavirus, how many of them are still in Hong Kong, stuck and needing visas. We have that in our system to be able to respond quickly and develop a plan for each client as we go along. 

Question: We have a question from our student Ody. How long does the process take with the Chinese Labor Tribunal? 

Danilo: That’s a very common question among clients. Before the coronavirus outbreak and the protest in Hong Kong, we can predict within 2 to 3 months that should have been settled. But because of the closure of the Labor Relations Division and the suspension of the trial we cannot predict it will still be like that anymore. For instance I have a case she was terminated early in February and hearing for her trial has not even commenced yet. Some of our expectations before have already changed a lot. We have to keep a tab on our outstanding cases that are not related to coronavirus. We have emerging trends where clients are accused falsely of theft. We suspect that the employer might not just want to pay severance payment. Even for us it’s more challenging because we have to innovate also our case work and case management. We have to be very innovative also in explaining to our clients what policies may or may not work. We also try to experiment just to give our clients some sense of hope. Even though things are very uncertain we can actually still get a sense of what might happen. That’s what we try to tell them and help them in having an informed decision. 

Lastly, what are the practical interventions that we have so far with our clients to rise above these challenges. After the lockdown in the Philippines and also in Indonesia we have been assisting our clients to apply for extension of visa. It’s also good that the Immigration Department and the Labor Department have flexible rules when it comes to extension of stay. In the past you can only stay for 14 days but since they have also acknowledged the urgency of this they had to adjust. We also facilitate in explaining to our clients the national subsidies for instance this DOLE ACAP. But unfortunately the Philippine Labor Office has suspended the subsidy at the moment because they said they have reached the quota so it means they never thought also that the number of affected workers might be more than what they have allotted a budget on.

Question: Do you have any other services aside from legal rights protection?

Danilo: We also provide services to clients who have already been in the Philippines. We also explain to them how to access this Social Amelioration Program by the Philippine government from $100 to $250 USD depending on where they live. We also encourage our clients to speak on their own issues. It should not be only us but also for our clients to really articulate the issues that they currently face. Among them is to give them the opportunity to speak to local journalists and newspapers and Chinese audiences to also help the public understand the predicament and difficulties that these workers are facing. It shouldn’t mean that because of the coronavirus they would be easily disposed of because they fear that they could infect the employers or contract the virus. There’s a lot of communication happening. We also let the workers help themselves by coming out in public to create their own space and make themselves heard. 

Question: When you say that you encourage them to speak out and make sure that their situation is known, do you feel that some would be more empowered to do so or have you seen some moving from seeking assistance on that specific topic to going to the media by herself? 

Danilo: There are clients who are very confident to do that. Even though the relationship of the domestic worker and the employer may not be equal, many of them when they feel strongly abused or they feel injustice, you don’t need to tell them to do it, they would do it themselves. Our role is only to facilitate if they want to speak for themselves we try to provide them a platform. We don’t tell them what to say because they can express in a profound way how they feel and what things should change for themselves. 

Question: Can you tell me some cases that HELP has dealt with successfully? 

Danilo: I can say some of the pattern, it’s very challenging to define what is successful at the moment because we are not there yet. One thing I could say is what we do when we help our clients. For instance we had a client who was terminated in February, she could not file a claim at the Labor Tribunal because it was closed and she could not also go back to the Philippines because the flights are suspended. What we try to do is we develop some programs in which that would enable her to pursue her claim at the Labor Tribunal at the long haul. Even while she’s terminated we help her on that and explain to her what could be the possible options. I’m happy to say that she has been offered a new employment contract and she now has a new employer. She might go back to the Philippines soon and when she comes back then that would enable her to pursue her claim. That’s helping clients get themselves ready for the long haul. That is very important. You have to worry about the accommodation, you have to worry about providing food and paying for the of visa extension. Many NGOs have been advocating for instance waiver for visa fees. They hadn’t done that yet. You have to pay 230 just to extend your visa. On many occasions the amount that you are claiming if you compare that to the cost that you already spent is already beyond but it is no longer just the claim it’s about the injustice they suffer. They want to be affirmed that their rights have been violated. We try to help our clients get themselves ready for the long haul not only financially but also emotionally and psychologically we talk to them regularly we explain to them what might be their options if they stay or decide to go back. If you call it success that could be. 

Also for workers who have been terminated like employers refusing to pay severance payment, we tried to ensure that even though we are not in the office we can serve our clients like speak to them directly and orient them on how to talk to their employers and assert their rights. On many occasions we have been able to help our clients claim their entitlements ranging from 5,000 to 29,000HKD. We only give them tools and arguments on how they should tell their employers that they are entitled to that. And if they don’t they could be held legally liable. We can support our clients if they want. We also try to help them if they want to conduct out of court settlements and facilitate that one in employment agencies. We also try to tell them what should be for you and what should be the obligations of employers. We cannot allow our clients to accept lower than what is right. These are ongoing interventions we have for our clients. Also we are happy to share that some organizations and individuals have been donating hand sanitizers and face masks. We distribute them as much as we can. We also try to raise money. We have this fundraising drive. We receive online donations that go to our clients so we can give them options. We can’t just tell them to fight if you can’t give them some tools. One of them is to give them some resources like paying visa fees. If there are listeners who would like to donate, those are very practical assistance that they could do for our clients. 

Question: We have a question from the comments. One thing that they face sometimes is when they become a co maker or guarantor of a loan and they are harassed by loan sharks, is there any advice you have on that matter?

Danilo: It’s also very common unfortunately. We assist clients on a case to cases basis when it comes to debt cases. I would strongly suggest that she contact us directly so we can provide advice appropriately. 

Question: What are the most important rights that domestic workers may not know they have?

Danilo: I would say that even though there is unequal relationship between the employer and the domestic worker and the employers  We shouldn’t forget that 

they have this self determination or self preservation in which you can really decide to protect your own self your own self. You can say no. If your employer forces you to work excessively you can say no. The challenges actually are the support system. In Hong Kong it’s very difficult to just say no. You have to provide options for them. I’ve seen this pattern. I’m not a psychologist but I have observed this pattern among my clients. There are employers who really try to weaken their resolve, make them feel inferior, verbally abuse them, humiliate them, make them feel stupid. Those are situations in which the worker really feel her resolve weaken. They should not lose that. Many of the domestic workers in Hong Kong are highly professional workers in the Philippines, they are university graduates. Knowing how to protect ourselves is also knowing and understanding what our rights are and accessing information to NGOs who might also help them to strengthen their resolve and empower them in many ways.

Question: What is your advice to domestic workers?

Danilo: I will take the words that you both have mentioned earlier. This is a community, it’s easier to address our individual issues if we also connect ourselves to a community. If they feel they need help they should start asking which organizations or communities they could approach to get some help. It’s very isolating in Hong Kong especially if you are a new worker here. If the employer notices that you are a newcomer in Hong Kong then you are exposed to abuse and exploitation. Get involved in your community. Do what you can. If you are also interested you can get in touch with us. We are trying to develop programs for our clients also at HELP and they can also suggest on how they could engage in community outreach as well.