Graphic: paperbridgeee for Lausan

Care workers in the epidemic—Part 2: Twenty years as a migrant worker mother

Two pandemics, four employers, two decades of fierce commitment to organizing migrant workers in Hong Kong.

Original:【照顧者的抗疫日常】之二 兩次疫情、四任僱主:移工「媽媽」在香港的二十年, published in 香港獨立媒體 (InMediaHK)

Translators: JP, TC, Ellie Tse, yehua

If you would like to be involved in our translation work, please get in touch here.

Series table of contents:
PART ONE: Care work, employment and race
PART TWO: Twenty years as a migrant worker mother
PART THREE: Caring for children with special needs

Editors’ note: Care work in the household plays a crucial role in keeping society together. In a time of crisis, this labour is especially overlooked. For this year’s International Working Women’s Day, the migrants solidarity committee of autonomous 8a spoke to carers about their experiences and working conditions throughout the ongoing pandemic.

The authors from migrants solidarity committee autonomous 8a connect and walk with the grassroots. They endeavour to fight for the genuine autonomy of peoples with mutual respect from the root, where participating in democracy in their own capacities becomes possible. They devote themselves to the mass of migrant workers and their movement through connecting with and getting to know the grassroots. They continue to take part in migrant workers’ movements from different perspectives, distributing information and sharing understanding among the public.

When we talk about care workers, we can’t afford to overlook the 300,000 migrant domestic workers (MDWs) in Hong Kong, but their stories are also often the hardest to tell. Let’s start with the employment relationship. MDWs and local workers encounter similar problems: Employers do not provide them with any face masks, so they have to source some by themselves. However, MDWs are legally required to live with their employers. Some employers worry they will bring the virus home after being out and about with no protective equipment. And with the Labor Department “encouraging” MDWs to stay at home on their days off, some employers have prohibited MDWs from taking a day off—even if it is just once per week. There have even been cases of MDWs being fired when they fought for their statutory rest day.

This situation reflects more than just particular unscrupulous employers’ refusal to protect the occupational safety and wellbeing of workers, but also systemic discrimination on the levels of policy and society as well as the uneven financial ability of different employers. As we have seen from Ris and Nina’s experiences, wealthy employers have no trouble procuring protective equipment and do not mind getting their groceries in expensive chain supermarkets. But many of those hiring MDWs are just ordinary middle-class families who queued up outside pharmacies for masks and tried to order equipment online to no avail.

In this economic downturn, grassroots workers have to deal with already challenging conditions of survival made even trickier as they lose their livelihoods altogether. But for MDWs, losing their jobs puts them in desperate financial straits not least because of the considerable debt they incur in the form of agency fees (MDWs must find a job via agencies in order to work in Hong Kong, which agencies exploit by overcharging fees to rake in profit), in addition to the threat of deportation. We have not even asked the all-important question: Who would want to leave their homes behind and work so far afield if they can find a proper job back home?

Onto care work. Compared to our mothers and other carers, MDWs are at least paid, but their working conditions are much worse than that of local domestic workers. The current minimum allowable wage for MDWs is HK$4,630 per month; they are not protected by the statutory minimum wage of HK$37.5/hr, which applies only to local workers. In addition, they are mandated to live in their employer’s home, meaning that there is no definitive end to their work day. As a result, many migrant domestic workers we interviewed spoke of the stress of working and living under the constant supervision of their employers (who are now working at home because of the coronavirus pandemic). Imagine having to live with your boss and be on-call 24 hours a day.

In many families, MDWs shoulder the care work with their female employers. As such, what is the distribution and negotiation of work between them? How much say do MDWs have in the matter? Underlying these are the intersecting depreciation of domestic labour and discrimination on the basis of gender and race.

The relationship between the carer and the cared-for is even more delicate. “We’re like a family,” so say the families who have a good relationship with their MDWs. Indeed, emotional labour is woven into MDWs’ daily work: From looking after dependent, affectionate and arrogant children to keeping the company of caring, fussy and temperamental elderly family members. But at the end of the day, they are not the MDWs’ family, because this relationship—distant or close—will inevitably end when they leave the city and return to their own homes. And when they do, they will have to nurse an emotional void formed as a result of leaving behind such deep-rooted attachments (however fraught they may be) while trying their best to make up for lost time with their own families.

Plus, even if MDWs managed to lay down roots in Hong Kong, and their children have all started their own families, they would still not have the choice to stay (NB: they are not eligible to apply for permanent residence, however long they have worked here for.) And disparities in power exist even within the best employer-employee relationships.

In the end, it’s always the same story: The lack of adequate public care service, gendered division of labour, devaluation of care work, the interests embedded in the relationships between MDW exporting and importing countries, and the institutional and social discrimination against migrant workers. These interlocking forces predestine the following bitter experiences. But is this all? Can an individual escape the shackles of this fate? Can collective resistance effect change? Amidst persistent countercurrents of struggle, let us hear their stories. 

On a Sunday at the beginning of March, I went to Central with the aim of understanding more about migrant workers’ work and lives under the coronavirus outbreak. Upon exiting the MTR station, I discovered that the usually packed Chater Road was much quieter than usual. Walking through the pedestrian subway, I arrived outside City Hall where many Filipino migrant worker organizations had congregated. They were holding an organizing meeting for International Women’s Day (IWD). Although there were fewer MDWs going out for their weekly rest day than usual, different unions continued to set up street stalls to field people’s inquiries. They had also prepared some surgical masks to give out to migrant workers who needed them. 

Upon learning that I wanted to chat with MDWs, a Filipino worker that I am acquainted with pointed and said, “You should find Nanay Nida!” In Tagalog, Nanay means “Mother”—a title reserved for the elder members of the migrant worker community. As a member of the Filipino Migrant Workers’ Union (FMWU), Nida had just come back from her meeting, carrying a small folding stool. She said that she previously had arthritis, which meant that she could not stand for too long. While we were speaking, other Filipina workers passing by would wave at and greet her, or bend down and discuss the plans for IWD. Nida received a handful of fresh surgical masks, and muttered that even during SARS, there had not been a mask shortage like now. Only then did I realize SARS has left a much deeper impression on her than on me, as I was just in primary school at the time. 2003, the year of the SARS outbreak, was Nida’s fourth year in Hong Kong.

A mother of three sons

I intended to talk to Nida about how she is coping under the outbreak; instead, she told me about the story of her life. Twenty years ago, equipped with a university degree, Nida had been working as an accountant at a finance company in the Isabela Province in the Philippines. Since she was not a chartered accountant, her job could only provide her with just enough to put food on the table. Her monthly salary was less than HK$2000, which, at the time, was half the salary of MDWs in Hong Kong. Her youngest son was seven years old, her middle child was studying in secondary school, and her eldest son had just started at Manila University. The urban-rural disparity is mainly manifested in the quality of education received by different members of this big family. After returning home from his studies in Manila, Nida’s eldest son told her about all the things you cannot learn at provincial level universities and the people he met in the city. It left a mark on Nida: On 9 September 1999, Nida left the Philippines for Hong Kong at 45 years of age.

Now that Nida had ventured to a foreign land, it was time for her sister-in-law to take up the task of caring for her three children. This cycle is one that many migrant workers have experienced in their own family histories. 

When she was away, her two younger sons were left to the care of her husband. Separated by distance, Nida bought her sons a cell phone—the cheapest model available at the time so they can keep in touch. But she did not have enough to buy herself a phone as well, so she would buy prepaid SIM cards that she can use in street telephone booths, or ask to borrow the phone in shops. Five years later, her husband unfortunately passed away. By this time, her eldest son had graduated, and was working at a large telecommunications company. Her middle child had also just started at university, and could take care of himself. But her youngest was still studying in secondary school at home. “What do you want to do?” She asked her young son, who said he wanted to be with his brothers. So she sent him to a private secondary school in Manila that had expensive fees, comparable to those charged by universities. Nida shouldered them all.

While her sons were in Manila, they stayed in one room of Nida’s sister-in-law’s house, who also fed them, and to whom Nida would send money monthly to pay for their living costs. She described this as a kind of “payback time”: In 1985, Nida’s husband had gone to Saudi Arabia to work, so Nida took care of her sister-in-law’s family. And when her sister-in-law was in university, she also depended on Nida, who was working and only had one son at that point. Now that Nida had ventured to a foreign land, it was time for her sister-in-law to take up the task of caring for her three children. I guess this cycle is one that many migrant workers have experienced in their own family histories. 

Twenty years working in Hong Kong

Nida, now approaching the age of retirement, worked for twenty years in Hong Kong through all its ebbs and flows. During this time, she took care of four families, the first of which was Chinese. The way she remembered it, the work was not particularly hard, but it had fallen upon the first pay-cut for MDWs: in 1999, the government lowered MDWs’ minimum allowable wage from HK$3860 to HK$3270, citing the effects of the 1997 Asian financial crisis. For someone who has to support the living and tuition costs of three children, HK$600 is a considerable loss for Nida. When she asked for a raise after her two-year contract was up, she was turned down and chose not to renew the contract. Instead she found work with a Canadian family to take care of their four-year-old son. This time, the employer was more generous and always paid her more than the minimum wage. But when SARS hit Hong Kong in 2003 and the whole family had to move back to Canada, Nida was distraught: Looking for new jobs during an epidemic was extremely difficult. If she couldn’t find any, she would be forced to move back to the Philippines! Besides, how was she going to pay her agency fees, incurred when she came to Hong Kong? Or her sons’ tuition? … She cried at the thought of it all.

Fortunately, Nida met a single mother who had just arrived from the Netherlands with her three-and-a-half-year-old son. Nida remembers the interview like it was yesterday: 5 May 2003, she arrived at the Dutch lady’s office in Lai King—her first time in the area. They sat down, she looked at Nida’s résumé but asked very little about her work experience. Instead, they chatted about their kids and the lady showed Nida a picture of her son. “He’s very, very cute!” Nida can’t wait to show me a picture. The next day was a Sunday. Nida, the lady and her son met up for breakfast at Pacific Place (Nida recognized the place from her previous job, as she would come here often to deliver suits to her Canadian employer). The boy quickly warmed to her and asked if she would play with him on the escalator. When he got tired, he tugged on her hem and said to her, “Come home with us!” The rest was history—Nida stayed on for thirteen years with this family, her third and longest.

The day she left, the Dutch woman drove Nida to her new employer’s house. Before she said goodbye, she shook the new employer’s hand and said, ‘Please take good care of Nida.’

Looking back on the SARS years, Nida recalls that it was nowhere near as serious as COVID-19. Everyone wore masks, but there was no shortage in supplies and her church stayed open on Sundays. She remembered that it only took half a year for the epidemic to come under control, as her last employer—the Canadian family—returned to Hong Kong that same year in September and wanted to rehire her. She could not take the job because of her new contract, but she went to visit them in Pok Fu Lam. She also remembers that her Dutch employer was only able to afford the luxury apartment at Parkview because of the drop in rent due to SARS.

She moved to Kennedy Road, and then to Clear Water Bay, with her Dutch employer. The Dutch woman was a pious Buddhist, who often went to Nepal for spiritual formation trips, bringing back candles, incense, and different ornaments for the home. Nida often had to help prepare her visa application. In the blink of an eye, the little boy who she used to play with on the Pacific Place escalator entered an international school, and soon turned 17 years old. He no longer needed Nida to take care of him. The day she left, the Dutch woman drove Nida and her suitcases to her new employer’s house. Before she said goodbye, she shook the new employer’s hand and said, “Please take good care of Nida.” That employment relationship lasted 13 years, and Nida has kept in close touch with them. The boy is now 20 years old, and studying at a university in Amsterdam. When she saw the news that there had been a confirmed coronavirus case in a Buddhist temple in North Point, Nida immediately called the Dutch lady, asking how she was. Nida knew that she was living by herself in Hong Kong—she was worried that there would be no one to take care of her.

Doing chores in a big house

Nida has worked for her current employer for three years. For the first six months, they lived in a flat in Tung Chung; they then moved to a cottage on Lantau Island. Nida sounded depressed once we reached the topic of moving houses. I asked her why she liked the apartment more. Without hesitation, she said, “It’s easy to clean! Even if you have three toilets, at least [they are] on the same storey. No need to climb the stairs or take care of the garden.” Her employer’s current house is a classic, three-floor style cottage: the bottom floor is the garden, grown full of basil and spring onions, as well as a large palm tree. The balcony is used to hang clothes to dry, and there is also a sofa on which you can sit to enjoy the scenery. Just thinking about having to clean the whole house gives me a headache. 

There are two MDWs in the household. Nida is in charge of cleaning, tending to the garden, taking care of the cats and walking the dog, while the other is in charge of buying groceries and cooking. Apart from cleaning the house, taking care of the pets is a burdensome task. The two cats don’t need a lot of attention, but the 14-year old Doberman and small dog are very demanding. The small dog may be happy with playing and “doing its business” in the garden, but the big dog needs to go outside for walks. Nida has to walk the Doberman four times a day. After giving it medicine at 6am, Nida walks it for around an hour. (“It takes longer because we’re an old dog and an old woman walking together!” Nida quipped.) At 11am and 4pm, Nida takes the dog out so it can pee, for around 15-20 minutes at a time. At 8pm, Nida takes the dog out for another hour. Apart from this, because the Doberman is old and sick, she often has to go to the vet in Sha Tin to get his medicine, or bring the dog to do checkups at the SPCA in Mui Wo.

The two MDWs take turns to have their rest days. Nida takes her holiday on Sundays, and her colleague takes Saturdays off, but she would always prepare Saturday’s meals, label them, and put them in the fridge, so that Nida, who is less proficient at cooking, can simply reheat the meals for their employer. The two MDWs’ schedules and itineraries, along with the employer’s, are all written on a whiteboard in the house. 

Nida’s working conditions during the epidemic has been much better than those of the other MDWs we interviewed for this series. Her employer has given her surgical masks, hand sanitizer, and even higher-level N95 masks (though Nida said wearing them makes her “feel like an astronaut”, so she usually just puts them in her bag on her rest days and wears a regular surgical mask instead). She can take her holiday as usual on Sundays, as long as she leaves her shoes outside and immediately showers and washes her clothes when she comes home. She knows many other MDWs, especially those who live in the same apartment as their employers, who are literally sprayed with alcoholic sanitizer before they even enter the house. Neither did Nida have to join in the “wave” of rice and toilet paper panic-buying and hoarding. The most she bought was two packs of toilet roll when she passed by a supermarket while leaving Central on a Sunday.

But the work of cleaning the house has indeed become more arduous: She has to change the bedsheets and pillow covers, as well as iron clothes, more often, and even has to change the towels in the three bathrooms every day. A while ago, there was a confirmed case of coronavirus in a pet pomeranian. After that, Nida’s employer told her to take special care of the two dogs—whenever they drool or sneeze on surfaces in the house, she had to disinfect those surfaces immediately. Her employer often asks whether Nida has remembered to change the hand towels in the bathrooms. “You see: the one yesterday was blue, today it’s green,” Nida would reply, “I change it every day!” So to keep the peace of mind of her employer, Nida would never hang white towels in the bathrooms.

Even though it is a part of her work, Nida and her employer’s daily interactions are very meaningful. Since the start of the anti-extradition bill protests last year—and even more so with the coronavirus outbreak—her employer would ask her to watch the English-language news with the family in the living room every evening. This later developed into the employer texting Nida, asking if she had watched the news yet, if she was not at home. Nida grimaced: Even if she had not watched the news yet, it is already plastered across Facebook.

Whenever the employer invited friends over to eat, she would let Nida introduce different Filipino delicacies. Even though Nida wasn’t responsible for cooking—as it was usually the other MDW who bought groceries and cooked—she nonetheless understood their employer’s family’s taste well. For example, she knows her female employer doesn’t like sweet things, but her father likes to eat sinigang (a traditional Filipino stew that combines meat marinated with tamarind and tastes a bit sour.)

An employer who supports the migrant worker rights movement

Nida’s current employer is a 50-year old American woman, who has a 13-year-old adoptive daughter. “She really understands our organizing work,” said Nida. FMWU was established in 1998, and has been mobilizing migrant workers in Hong Kong to fight for their rights ever since. It works with MDW organizations of different nationalities on policy and advocacy initiatives, with the aim of improving the working conditions of MDWs. Nida joined the union in around 2003 and is one of its most veteran members. Because she spends every Sunday deeply involved in the union’s organizing activities, she told her employer about her union participation before her interview, to which her employer expressed no objection. 2017 was her first year in an official role of the union. That year, MDWs participated in the May Day protests as usual, to fight for improvements in both migrant workers’ and local workers’ conditions. Nida’s employer and her adoptive daughter showed up and marched alongside the migrant workers section of the rally from Causeway Bay to the Government Headquarters. “She [my employer] wanted to show her adoptive daughter what migrant workers do on their holidays.”

Nida’s employer sometimes even tells her neighbours’ migrant domestic workers, ‘If you need help, find Nida!’

Apart from supporting MDWs’ rallies, Nida’s employer also participates in Mission for Migrant Workers’ annual charitable walk every year. Two years ago, when Bethune House—Hong Kong’s only shelter for MDWs—was plunged into financial crisis, Nida’s employer shared the news amongst her colleagues and raised funds to donate to the shelter. Nida’s employer is happy for her to take telephone calls on weekdays: “It might be someone who needs help!” Indeed, Nida often receives calls from other MDWs needing help: Some may have been fired suddenly in the middle of the night by their employer and forced to leave the house, requiring immediate help from MDW organizations. So Nida’s employer sometimes even tells her neighbours’ MDWs, “If you need help, find Nida!” 

Community organizing in the time of an epidemic 

MDW union organizing work often can only take place on Sundays, when they can run street stalls to provide counselling for workers, organize different types of events, and conduct meetings in person. Now, because many employers are worried that their MDWs will contract the virus while congregating on their rest days (NB: In reality, the majority of confirmed cases amongst migrant workers have contracted the virus from their employers), many MDWs have been prohibited from taking their rest days, and it has been hard to kickstart organizing work.

In response to the pandemic, previously scheduled events such as the One Billion Rising action in February and International Women’s Day rallies on 8 March were shortened (previously, the events ended at 6pm, but this year they ended at 2pm), and could only take place on a smaller scale. This year, the International Women’s Day action only took place in Central, with migrant workers spread out across Chater Road and City Hall to prevent large numbers of people congregating. The first Sunday since the government banned gatherings of more than four people, migrant workers broke off into many different areas of Central in order to hand out leaflets and share information on fighting the epidemic. 

Ever since Duterte became president, Nida and FMWU have kept a close eye on and condemned the government for suppressing voices of dissent.

Nida actually became even busier with organizing her community in Lantau Island since social distancing policies were enacted. Over the past years, Nida has met many neighbouring MDWs while walking her employer’s dog. Knowing that Nida is a member of FMWU, they often come to Nida with queries about their working conditions and employment agencies. As a result, Nida has begun to circulate petitions demanding improvements in migrant workers’ conditions and questionnaires surveying the lives of migrant workers on Lantau Island. Before the explosive coronavirus outbreak, Nida would often meet up with other MDWs on Lantau Island for barbeques or to celebrate their birthdays. And she would waste no time to explain to her MDW sisters about statutory rest days, how they cannot be asked to work outside of the address on their contracts, how to calculate their long service payments and details about their employment contracts—all with a pamphlet about MDW rights in hand.

She also never shies away from discussing political issues in the Philippines with them, from the high unemployment rate to the violent expropriation of farmlands. Ever since Duterte became president, she and FMWU have kept a close eye on and condemned the government for suppressing voices of dissent. Within the Filipina MDW community, there are of course people who support the government; nonetheless, Nida will engage them in discussion: “Come to me. Tell me what your good president has done to the migrants. There is no job in the Philippines, [even] the educated people have to work overseas as servants and live with all those discriminatory policies. What did the Filipino government do?” Whether she is helping MDWs with their difficulties or debating politics, “Nanay” is utterly uncompromising in her stance. These days, Nida is busy handing out leaflets with information about the epidemic within her community, and is sharing information on Hong Kong’s latest measures to combat the virus on social media. 

Nanay is about to say goodbye

“After two more years, I’ll be going back to The Philippines.” The energetic Nida is actually already 65 years old. Her three sons have all become accomplished professionals. Her eldest, who majored in broadcasting, is now 38 years old and has left his previous telecommunications company to work at a large corporation. Her middle child is a specialist nurse in an eye bank at the Philippines General Hospital, assisting with corneal transplantation surgeries for people with visual impairments. Her youngest is a registered nurse, and is responsible for conducting many COVID-19 tests during the pandemic. Every time Nida talks about her sons, her pride for them shines through; even her Facebook profile picture is a group shot of the three of them—after all, they were raised through twenty years of her blood, sweat, and tears. “Of course I have sacrifices, but do you think they don’t?” I think Nida is referring to the time her sons have been separated from her, how a long-distance relationship can never be an adequate substitute for real companionship, how she was absent throughout her sons’ childhoods—at the end of the day, there’s no making up for that lost time.

As for her own future, Nida is very calm. Although she has low blood pressure and has to have a blood test and body check-up every year, her employer’s healthcare insurance has always covered her needs. Two years ago, she started having arthritis, and could not bend her knee due to the pain; but now she feels much better: “I can even dance during One Billion Rising!” After she returns to the Philippines, she will join her sons in Manila. The sum of her pension—to which she is entitled through social security—in addition to her many years of savings is not a lot, but it will be enough for her to live on. From time to time, she will meet up with her friends and old colleagues, and enjoy retired life.

The thing she will miss the most about Hong Kong is this group of Filipino MDWs who lovingly call her “Nanay.” While she is still in Hong Kong, she wants to let her fellow Filipina sisters know: “Whenever you are mistreated, I’m always here.”