Duty of care

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 June, 2011, 12:00am


Children born to migrant women are among the most vulnerable and deprived of all Hong Kong-born children. The majority are of mixed ethnic parentage, are being raised by single mothers, or both, factors which foreshadow a rocky path ahead. To help them, we need to help their mothers.

The majority of female migrant workers in Hong Kong are the 240,000 foreign domestic helpers. They play a critical role in the economy, enabling dual-income families to function. They are also an integral part of Hong Kong family life.

In the past few years, Hong Kong has witnessed an increase in the number of migrant women who have children in Hong Kong. In its first three years of operation, PathFinders, a charity set up in 2008, assisted over 400 migrant pregnant women, mothers and children. Most of these women entered Hong Kong as foreign domestic helpers. It is estimated that there are currently over 6,000 undocumented and documented migrant women in Hong Kong who are pregnant or have a child. Some 75 per cent of those whom PathFinders serves are Indonesian, a population that has dramatically increased, from 10,000 in 1994 to over 140,000 in 2010. Most of these women are between 18 and 25, from rural communities, and have little, if any, sex education.

Once a migrant woman becomes pregnant, the outlook is grim. She often loses her job, even though it is illegal for an employer to terminate her contract because of pregnancy. Foreign domestic helpers are entitled to 10 weeks' maternity leave. Yet, employers often take advantage of a migrant labourer's lack of understanding in law enforcement. Migrant women who do fight for their maternity rights through the Labour Tribunal are usually successful, but their relationship with their employer is destroyed in the process. Suddenly jobless, these pregnant women have only two weeks to secure a new job before their visa expires, which is virtually impossible.

Fearful of returning home with an 'out-of-wedlock' and 'mixed-race' child, pregnant migrant women often go into hiding, emerging only when they are desperately in need of help. By the time a mother does seek help, it is often too late. Once a migrant overstays her visa, she can neither work nor access much needed social welfare, medical or related government services available to Hong Kong residents. This places her in an easy position to be exploited for cheap labour and sex trafficking, and her child highly vulnerable to child trafficking.

Given the importance of migrant workers in our community, we must ensure that those we invite into our homes have access to family planning services and sex education. This may mean giving them time off to attend government clinics that are not open on Sundays and the opportunity to attend sex education classes at local non-governmental organisations. While this is a sensitive issue in any family, it is one worth tactfully exploring to help avoid mistakes which can ruin lives. Ensuring migrants have access to medical services and education not only benefits Hong Kong's international image of being a fair and just society, but is also consistent with our cultural values of caring for the most vulnerable among us.

Kylie Uebergang is the co-founder and executive director of PathFinders (www.pathfinders.org.hk), an NGO that works with distressed migrant women. This article is part of a monthly series on women and gender issues, developed in collaboration with The Women's Foundation