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Coronavirus: Stranded by Manila’s travel ban, Hong Kong domestic workers face financial havoc and an uncertain future

Mimi Rios has to pay 5,000 Philippine pesos (HK$768) for her son’s college exam fee this week – a small fortune she can only afford thanks to her job as a Hong Kong domestic worker. But she is one of many migrant workers facing an uncertain financial future after Manila imposed a ban on travellers from the city over the deadly coronavirus outbreak, leaving them stranded and anxious.

Over 73,000 people in over two dozen countries have been infected with the novel virus, which was first detected in the Chinese province of Hubei. Among them have been over 1,800 recorded deaths including one in the Philippines, prompting President Rodrigo Duturte to extend an entry ban to all visitors from China, Hong Kong and Macau.

Philippines Manila face mask coronavirus China

People buying protective masks at a medical supplies store in Manila on January 31, 2020. File photo: Ted Aljibe/AFP.

“I’m so worried because I don’t have any income,” Rios, 48, told HKFP. “This is a basic necessity because all of my income is for my children. What if I can’t go back? How am I going to support my family?”

‘Worried’

Hong Kong is home to 380,274 foreign domestic workers, according to government statistics – more than half of whom are from the Philippines. Many make the momentous decision to move in search of higher wages to support their loved ones, spending months apart while sending cash home. But with the uncertainty of the travel ban, domestic workers like Rios have been forced to count their pennies.

“I’m scared, of course. In the Philippines, it’s very difficult to find a job,” she said. “For now, I can still pay [college fees] but in the coming weeks – no. I don’t know where to get the money. Maybe I can ask for an advance from my employer, but I’m not working, so I don’t know how to ask them for it.”

The mother of three said she is wracked with fear that if the ban continues, her employer will find another domestic worker – a prospect which will deal a devastating blow to her family’s financial security.

“I am worried my boss will replace me because they still need our services,” she said, though her employer has vowed to wait for now.

domestic worker maid helper

File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Rios’ concerns have been compounded by the loss of her mother from a stroke, prompting her to rush home last month. Little did she know then that her plan to return last Sunday would be indefinitely postponed.

She said the medical costs of her mother’s treatment have drained her savings, forcing her to seek financial support from the Philippine’s Overseas Workers Welfare Administration – offering P10,000 (HK$1,536) per eligible person amid the crisis. It is a safety net that has done little to quell her unease.

“I’m not sure, some said they only received P5,000 (HK$768),” she said. “It’s very insufficient for us if we’re staying here for a long time. Things here are expensive.”

Recruitment platform HelperChoice found in a survey of 921 foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong, released last Wednesday, that 40 per cent had close friends or relatives impacted by the ban while 16 per cent have been personally affected.

‘Lose a nice employer’

Faced with the prospect of unemployment, Pinky Guilaran has also been shaken by the sudden travel restrictions that have left her with little time to prepare.

“It’s not easy finding a job at my age. We all know there’s age discrimination,” the 43-year-old told HKFP.

flu virus mask mtr

Photo: Kaiser/United Social Press.

The “breadwinner” in her family, Guilaran said she has only meagre savings after putting all of her income into her sister’s education and building a house.

She added that her boss of 10 years has already begun to look for a new domestic worker: “My employer told me it’s like she’s lost a leg when I’m not around… I’m worried I’ll lose a nice employer.”

But Hong Kong foreign domestic workers stranded in the Philippines have reason to be optimistic. Duterte’s administration announced last Friday its decision to relax its travel restrictions on visitors from Taiwan.

Meanwhile, Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat also told CNN last Saturday that the government is “looking into” loosening restrictions on travellers from China’s special administrative regions.

Rodrigo Duterte

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Photo: Wikicommons.

Filipino community leaders in Hong Kong met with Consul General Raly Tejada on Monday to submit a joint petition, signed by 134 migrant organisations, to loosen travel restrictions.

A technical working group by the Philippine government will meet on Tuesday to assess and decide on the future of the ban.

The priority for Hong Kong’s foreign domestic workers like Rios and Guilaran is to both find the money to stay afloat and avoid falling victim to a virus that has gripped international attention.

“It’s troublesome for me because the most important thing is hygiene,” Rios said. “We know how to handle ourselves when we’re working. We are trying our best to be healthy in order to support our families – there’s no need to ban workers from travelling.”

Coronavirus: Stranded by Manila's travel ban, Hong Kong domestic workers face financial havoc and an uncertain future