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Foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong

‘Humanitarian crisis’ for migrant mothers in Hong Kong, local NGO claims

Charitable group last year helped twice the number of people it served five years ago and reports issues such as lost jobs, legal complexities and lack of health support

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 January, 2018, 8:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 January, 2018, 10:04am

Migrant mothers in Hong Kong are facing a “humanitarian crisis” as the number of women on the verge of despair has dramatically increased in recent years, a local NGO has claimed.

PathFinders has struggled with a growing demand of vulnerable and distressed migrant women – most of them domestic workers – who after becoming pregnant often lose their jobs, must deal with legal matters, lack health support and sometimes face depression, the charitable group’s CEO Kay McArdle said.

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Last year alone, the group – billed as the only one of its kind locally to exclusively support migrant mothers – helped 988 women and children. That figure was almost twice the number it helped five years ago. But it fears there are more people in need whom they are unable to reach.

“We are dealing with an unnecessary humanitarian crisis,” McArdle said. “Policies need to be put in place to at least alleviate the crisis we are handling and help people navigate a defined path.”

Her comments came after two babies were abandoned on local streets in recent months. Their mothers were women from the Philippines and Zambia, although the reasons for their stay in Hong Kong were unclear.

“We are shocked and saddened by these stories, but sadly we are not surprised.”

McArdle noted a level of “desperation” among many migrant mothers in the city and described the number of those seeking help as having “exploded”.

“We started out with four cases in 2007. In 2016, we hit 901 new cases and in 2017 we reached 988,” she explained. “It’s getting worse and it’s becoming a significant issue for small NGOs like us to provide adequate let alone strong services.”

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In the past nine years, PathFinders helped about 5,000 people, almost 2,200 of whom were children ranging from newborns to two-year-olds. She said at least 150 were at an extreme risk of abuse, neglect, trafficking and abandonment.

McArdle believed Hong Kong should craft a policy introducing practical guidelines for employers, employment agencies, sending and receiving countries as well as government departments on how pregnant migrant workers and their babies should be cared for in the city.

It’s becoming a significant issue for small NGOs like us to provide adequate let alone strong services
Kay McArdle, Pathfinders

The absence of direction from the government caused confusion, she said, with nobody knowing for certain whether “what they are doing is correct or incorrect” such as where a baby should be staying and who has legal obligations.

“We need clarity,” she added. “We need clear guidelines.”

McArdle stated that health care should be provided as well as maternity leave of between eight and 10 weeks.

At present, the city has about 370,000 domestic workers, mostly from the Philippines and Indonesia. Many of these women are of childbearing age.

Local officials said recently that Hong Kong would require an additional 240,000 domestic workers in the next 30 years. And as more women are brought to the city, the number of pregnancies is expected to rise.

But many migrants who learn they are expecting a baby end up being dismissed or encouraged to quit. It is unlawful to fire a domestic helper due to pregnancy. However, employers often allege they were dissatisfied with their services, and many women are unaware of their pregnancy rights.

Domestic helpers whose contracts are terminated are forced by law to return to their home countries within 14 days. Advocates and legal experts said many in such straits felt they had no other option but to overstay and go underground.

“The women are in an extremely precarious position,” McArdle said. “[They have to] navigate the system in a foreign country, largely in a foreign language, where they are treated as second or third-class citizens. It’s extremely challenging.”

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Unless they have a father who is a Hong Kong permanent resident, the children are not recognised as holding such legal status.

“Quite often the first document the baby will have is an immigration recognisance paper,” McArdle said. “It’s like a bail sheet. These children deserve a birth certificate like everyone else on the planet and yet they have been criminalised when they are in fact victims.”

Pathfinders was not advocating residency status for such children but instead sought to avoid their being rendered stateless.

“I don’t think the children’s ability to thrive in life should be defined by their mother’s job,” she maintained. “Hong Kong is a very developed and accomplished society. I am assuming they just forgot that domestic workers and other migrant workers also have sex, relationships and do get pregnant.”

Hong Kong-based barrister Peter Barnes, who has worked on migrants’ cases, suggested the creation of a “mother’s visa” to allow the women to remain in the city while dealing with legal matters, such as the declaration of paternity, without having to face the risk of detention.

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Advocates have also called for a children’s commission, a body that Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor had vowed to establish.

“Until we see that commission actually in place, and protecting all children in Hong Kong – regardless of their immigration status – the sad reality is that we will have to continue helping these people and these cases will continue to occur,” McArdle said.

Barnes believed it was possible to have “a functional and human policy that recognises the difficulties these people face” without endangering the city’s immigration policy.

“If we want the benefits of having these people coming over and working here, we also need to accept that they will have children here and that their rights have to be protected,” he said.