Here is the transcript of Antivirus Episode #9 on May 19th to help our community of migrant domestic workers go through COVID-19 challenges.
Hi everyone, I am Marie, CEO and Founder of 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. https://www.facebook.com/uplifters.community/
This is the 9th 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 first 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. Secondly, Uplifters is first and foremost a community and we want to be here with you. We will go through these difficult times with you.
I am very happy to have Victoria Ahn with me tonight. Victoria is the Communications Manager of the Fair Employment Foundation in Hong Kong. The mission of Fair is to build market solutions to end the forced labour of migrant workers across Asia. One of its initiatives is the Fair Employment Agency. It is recognized as the standard for ethical and professional practices for all employment agencies, one that is transparent and trustworthy and fair to both employees and employers.
Victoria joined the Fair in August 2017, following experience in communications and fundraising at Enrich, a great charity providing face to face financial education and debt counselling to migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong. She is motivated by the opportunity to improve the recruitment system to work better for workers and their families.
Thank you very much for joining us tonight, Victoria. We really appreciate it. This live will mainly be relevant for the domestic workers in Hong Kong so we will try to provide updated information for domestic workers elsewhere in the region later on.
Marie: Covid-19 has greatly impacted domestic workers. What are the main challenges that you have seen them facing through your work at Fair? What has your organization been doing to help them in relation to these specific challenges?
Victoria: The pandemic has really affected domestic workers in many many ways. Workload is quite different because there’s some emphasis on hygiene, cleanliness at home, children in the home are staying indoors, employers are not going to the office, children are not going to school and so that has changed the work dynamic for a lot of domestic workers. At Fair as an employment agency what we have been seeing are the challenges in workers who are changing jobs and their employment situations. Mainly those employment challenges are to do with the way hiring processes are changing with Covid-10 measures coming into place. Covid-19 measures can be like travel bans, government agencies and government offices being closed, services being suspended and that means hiring and submitting new contracts have been affected and that is affecting domestic workers who are changing jobs.
Marie: We have seen a lot of new articles published by Fair. Do you want to tell us a little bit more about it?
Victoria: At Fair Agency we have a blog where we try to keep domestic workers and employers updated about the current situation. Most recently there have been quite a few changes at the POLO or Philippine Overseas Labor Office in Hong Kong where they have changed some of their services. This affected workers who are changing employers and also renewing contracts. At the moment currently if you are renewing a contract you don’t need to go get it notarized at the POLO office but you go directly to the Hong Kong Immigration to renew your contract with the same employer. But later that would mean maybe you have to go to a different notarization process to keep updated with the POLO office on how the situation changes. For workers who are changing employers the biggest change has been that all workers changing employers will need to use an agency. In Hong Kong normally those who are finishing contracts or those whose employers are relocating or have a financial difficulty, those special cases, those workers do not need to go through a special agency and could process themselves with new employers. But with the service changes in the POLO office right now workers need to use an agency and employers need to use an agency service to process all the paperwork. That was a big change. Another big impact has been the travel situation between the Philippines and Hong Kong. With the global pandemic flight situations have been changing very quickly. There’s very limited flights even locally in the Philippines there isn’t very much travel. Things are changing everyday but travel has been affected greatly. Specifically in the Philippines there has been many cases of coronavirus. The country has taken a lot of measures that differ from place to place in the Philippines meaning that each place has different restrictions, people are required to stay at home, offices are not returning to work and transportation isn’t working and the most recent news from that is that slowly some areas are lifting restrictions, selected industries are returning to work but will still be a gradual process. What does this mean for workers who have to go back to the Philippines to process? It means that processing time is quite slow and they may be quite delayed to return to Hong Kong to their new employer. This requires very good communication with their employers and understanding that they might not be able to report to work at the time they wanted to.
Marie: If domestic workers are looking to change employers right now, what should they know about?
Victoria: The first point here is something that you should consider every time you are looking for a new employer or if you are applying for a new job is that if you are using an agency to make sure that it is an agency that you can trust, that your employer can trust as well and that you are not charged fees that are illegal. In Hong Kong it is legal for agencies to charge a maximum of 10% of your first month salary. So if your salary is $4,620 HKD which is the minimum at the moment then the employment agency should only charge you about $460 HKD. They should not be charging you more than 10% of your first month salary. You should not be asked for your passport, you should be able to have access to your passport. They are not allowed to hold on to it. They should be able to explain to you any documents that you are signing. If you have any questions on the document that the employment agency is asking you to sign, they need to explain that to you and you don’t need to feel forced or pressured into signing. That is the first point. Using an agency that you trust. Specifically right now in Hong Kong all workers are required to use an agency regardless of their contract status. So even if you finished the contract or your changing employers because your current employer is relocating you still have to use an agency. That is one thing to know about. Keep in mind right now the current situation in the Philippines. The travel situation. Things are changing all the time. There are several delays unlike before coronavirus. There are quarantine measures in Hong Kong and in the Philippines so be aware of the delays that might happen throughout the process that you are trying to change employers. That might be a consideration if you are thinking about breaking your contract. If it is possible to continue to work in your current contract may be a good idea if you can just because of the challenges in the situation. Workers with broken contract will need to go back to the Philippines to process. This may be a challenge that potential employers may not see as a desirable thing. They would prefer workers who can process locally or those workers who are finishing contracts or have special cases where their current employer is relocating and things like that. Those are the key things, using an agency that you trust, you should not be overcharged, you need to know your rights when you are applying a job and then the current situation means that there are a few delays and changes and so if you want to keep track of those, you can keep track of those on the Fair Agency Facebook and also by following the Philippine Overseas Labor Office in Hong Kong or the Consulate.
Marie: If workers in Hong Kong are unable/don’t want to leave their home to come to apply, how can they apply for new jobs?
Victoria: With the current situation we have seen that some workers prefer to stay home during their day off because they are worried about the virus but we have also seen some employers who have asked domestic workers to stay home. We’ve recognized that and so the first thing to mention here is that all domestic workers are entitled to 24 hours day off or 24 hours rest day in Hong Kong. It is in your right to spend that outside of your employer’s home. We understand that it is your rest day and you want to use that for other errands, for meeting your friends. It is a challenge that we see. We have also been asking employers to keep that in mind and be considerate of their worker’s time. Workers can also help the situation by communicating with their employer. Maybe telling them what safety measures they will take. They will always wear a mask, you’re not going to crowded places and you will be limiting your meet up with a few friends rather than a big crowd. But if it is quite difficult to come out and go to the agency to apply. I work with Fair Agency so I will mention their agency’s process. We started this offering of having workers apply online first, video call with workers so they are able to fill up a form on our website to apply and then arrange for a video call with our staff to have a one on one chat with our staff and then we begin the application process that way instead of our normal process of asking workers to come to our office. So if you are unable to come in to apply you can apply online. In Hong Kong there’s another agency called Arrows that has done a similar thing where video call chat is also available; they also don’t charge fees to workers. Continue to be careful about people you’re talking to online especially on Facebook groups when you are looking for a job. It is very easy for someone to have a profile so make sure that you go through and really check who you’re talking to.
Marie: We have a few questions. The first one is from Marie Agustin. In case I want to change employer do I need to go through the same process as before like taking training in the Philippines?
Victoria: If you are finishing a contract, you have fulfilled the 2-year contract you can process locally in Hong Kong and that means you can take your home leave. With each new contract you can take a home leave but you can choose to defer it. So if you are finishing a contract you don’t need to go back to the Philippines necessarily right away. You can take your home leave later. That might be a good idea considering the travel ban situation right now. You can ask Immigration to defer your home leave and take it on another time. For training, training is something that you only need to do once. You take your training and you receive your NC2 domestic work training certificate and then once you have that you really don’t need to retake training. This is very important to know. Unfortunately there are a lot of times where training is very very expensive. Agencies may ask you to take it again but if you have a valid NC II certificate you can use that you don’t need to go through training. Then again in the Philippines there is a law that says domestic workers are not allowed to be charged by agencies, also no placement fee. You should not be paying those kind of fees.
Maire: Jhoan is asking if the employment will end in August, when is the time to look for another employer? Is it good to look now before the contract ends?
Victoria: For those finishing contracts we generally advise workers to look for employers 2-3 months before the contract end day. So August should be mid June. If it’s too early, it might be too early for employers, employers may not be thinking forward to August yet. 2-3 months will give you a good enough time to start putting your application out. You can start looking for recommendations from employers and have interviews.
Marie: How can domestic workers extend their stay in Hong Kong if they are ending their contracts?
Victoria: There are two paths of extension of stay. If you are coming to the end of your current contract and the current situation is not great to go back to the Philippines yet then you may consider extending your contract with your current employer and stay working with your employer right now for 3 more months. Immigration is providing some flexibility for workers and employers who want to do this. So you go to Hong Kong Immigration then explain to the Officer about extending your visa contract and there is a visa fee of $230 HKD. If you are a worker who has ended their contract already normally in Hong Kong workers are given 2 weeks to stay in Hong Kong but considering the situation if you can explain to Immigration and maybe showing if your flight is cancelled and there is no available flight to your home place then you can tell the Immigration Officer that you need to extend your stay in Hong Kong. It is up to the officer’s discretion how long your extension can be. We have seen an extension of 4 weeks so that is a good thing. One thing to keep in mind is if you’re not under contract you will need to stay in a shelter or boarding house while you’re still in Hong Kong. There’s additional expenses with that so keeping those in mind is important. For those workers who we’ve placed and needed boarding and accommodation while they’re in between contracts or they have ended their contracts it is actually the responsibility of the agency at that point to make sure the worker has accommodation. We definitely have our own boarding house and we open that for our own workers. For other workers there is also the OWWA or Overseas Workers Welfare Administration that can provide support. If you need support while your contract has ended you can approach them for support and advice as well.
Marie: What are the requirements for quarantine in the Philippines when domestic workers return?
Victoria: In the Philippines a few days ago there was a requirement for returning workers to go into a 14 day quarantine but this has been amended. The OWWA office in the Philippines has also set up a Facebook page for quarantine operations called OWWA Quarantine Operations. So if you’re coming back to the Philippines it may be good to follow that page for advice. The most recent change for OFWs arriving in the Philippines is that at the airport you need to take a swab test. The test results will take a few days and so when the worker arrives in the airport they will take a swab test, wait for 3-5 days. They will be provided assistance and accommodation by OWWA. Once the test comes out and it is negative workers will be allowed to go home. Otherwise there will be further quarantine or treatment that will happen. Another thing to keep in mind right now is different regions have different restrictions on local transportation and public transportation may not be running or suspended so try to plan ahead and make sure that there is transportation for you.
Marie: We have a question from Shane. Shane is asking how long the visa is valid. She applied for a job in Hong Kong and signed a contract already.
Victoria: There should be a visa expiry date on your visa. Shane I think what your question is that you already applied for a job in Hong Kong and you signed a contract but I think what’s happening is you are back in the Philippines to wait for the visa processing to happen. You probably have a visa entry for Hong Kong. This is valid for a few months and then it expires. Check the expiry date on your visa. If it is expired before you return your agency will need to reapply for you in Hong Kong. This may take another few days. We have a guide on this process, what things might expire and things to be renewed because of the delays for processing. Check your visa document, ask your agency how long your entry visa is valid for and if they need to renew it they will need to talk to your employer as well and they will need to pay for another visa fee to Hong Kong Immigration of $230 HKD to do that. Check with your agency and check with your employer on your Hong Kong entry visa. Another thing that might expire for workers if they have been waiting for a long time is their medical exam. All Filipino domestic workers will need to undergo a medical exam before they leave the Philippines and acquire a fit to work certificate and this is only done by government accredited clinics and this has only a validity of a few months. If it is expiring this will need to be redone as well. The problem here is that I think the clinics and things related to recruitment there are plans to move forward but currently what we’re hearing is that a lot of clinics are still closed. Check with your agency. Make sure that they are on top of renewing things for you that are expiring; they will be able to book things for you as they need.
Marie: The Fair Employment Foundation has started a training center in the Philippines, right?
Victoria: The training centers in the Philippines right now along with other schools are not able to return to operations. The Fair Training Center is another one of our Fair Foundation’s initiatives. As a non-profit center, we provide training for first timer domestic workers and it is an accredited training center for NC2 domestic work. If you are planning to work abroad, keep our center in mind. Currently all workers are able to take their training for free and get testing for their certificate.
Marie: What are the requirements for quarantine in Hong Kong when domestic workers arrive?
Victoria: The quarantine requirement for travellers to Hong Kong at the moment I think it is only residents can enter Hong Kong only. Don’t worry it also includes domestic workers. Domestic workers with a valid work visa are still able to enter Hong Kong. There’s a quarantine requirement in Hong Kong right now. What happens is once you arrive in Hong Kong airport just be prepared for a quite long process as you will be asked to take some swab test and also fill out some health declaration forms. There will be some process where they will ask and explain to you how to do home quarantine. All arrivals will need to do home quarantine for 14 days when you arrive in Hong Kong and that means for domestic workers they would need to quarantine at the home of their employer because that is where your work visa and your contract stated where you will be. This will be the first choice that the government or health officials will want you to quarantine in. But in some cases employers’ preference or perhaps someone in the employer’s home is not very healthy and so they need to be extra careful and would need the domestic worker to quarantine somewhere else outside the home. In that situation the employer needs to make a request to the health department specifically and then also find a facility or hotel where the worker can quarantine but there some additional arrangements that the employer will need to do because if the worker is being quarantined in a hotel then somebody will need to deliver food and supplies to the hotel. We’ve been sharing information to employers. This is what to expect. Generally the first choice will be the worker coming in will quarantine for 14 days in their employer’s home. This means you are not allowed to leave the employer’s home and there will be some temperature check and symptoms check forms that you will be provided with and you can just take note of that everyday. Keeping some distance between other household members during this time is also important as well. It will be quite a different situation for those who are returning to Hong Kong for new employers. It’s not the same as before where you can just come back to Hong Kong and start working right away. Maybe there’s arrangements with your employer where you can do other tasks within the home but you won’t be able to leave the home for 14 days.
Marie: Just to make things very clear. Even if your employer does not want you to work you are still entitled to your salaries right?
Victoria: We have this question a lot. What happens to workers’ salaries if the worker is unable to report or perform their duties? This largely talks about workers who are stuck in the Philippines and unable to return to work. Unfortunately during this time there is no black and white answer. It’s up to the mutual understanding of the employer and the worker if there is a reduction in their salary or anything like that. In this situation we really recommend domestic workers and employers to reach out to their employment agency and reach out to the Labor Department hotline about what they should do in terms of their arrangement right now. We emphasize to employers that this is an opportunity to build a good working relationship by showing understanding and consideration for their worker. For workers, help your employer understand where you’re coming from and the salary is going to work in supporting your expenses and your family members so you can have a professional and open discussion about this so you can build a good working relationship.
Marie: We have a comment from Marie Agustin. She says that it’s good to know that your training center is free because before she came to Hong Kong she paid almost $4000 HKD.
We’re very lucky that there are organizations like Fair to make migration more ethical to migrant workers.
Victoria: Thank you Marie. Fair Training Center is a non-profit training center and we’re able to provide training for free at the moment because we’re being supported by donors and supporters. If you have friends who are considering going abroad to Hong Kong or other destinations for domestic work we are able to provide training so just keep following https://www.fairtraining.org/. We have a Facebook page as well. Just keep in mind that there are a lot of fees that may be hidden. If you don’t feel comfortable with the fees please ask. In the Philippines there is a law that requires agencies to not charge placement fees to domestic workers. For example if you are going to Fair Employment agency our partner agency does not charge any fees. For medical exams we reimburse them when they come back to Hong Kong. Just be aware of the fees that you are paying for. You should not be really paying more than 10% of your first month salary. That is the maximum agency fee that you should be charged.
Marie: What is your general advice to domestic workers?
Victoria: I would say the biggest thing I learned from working with migrant domestic workers is to really understand your plan and goal for going to work abroad. Understand which financial goal you’re saving up for. Are you saving up for your children’s studies or are you saving up for a home. Make sure that is clear before you come. Also understand how you will budget your money to be able to do that. Definitely take Uplifters courses and then be aware, don’t be afraid to ask questions throughout your migration. When you’re working with agencies try to look up information not just from your friends. Look at good information sources. In Uplifters you can definitely look at a lot of resources here. For Hong Kong you can look at the Fair agency website and Facebook but also even through OWWA’s Facebook page, POLO’s page and website, the government pages they have the regulations and rules there. Make sure that you also understand your rights and entitlements before making a big decision. This is a big decision.