There are more than 21 million migrant domestic workers filling the care gap in Asia and the Pacific, but despite their essential role and economic contribution, many face abuse and have few rights. Here are some of their stories. MISTREATED, SICK AND FIRED Filipino domestic worker in Hong Kong fired after employer found out she has cervical cancer Filipino domestic worker Baby Jane Allas was fired in February by her Hong Kong employers after having been diagnosed with stage-three cervical cancer. Before being sacked, Allas said for 15 months she had spent her nights in a cupboard without a bed or a mattress, and that she was given limited food and was not allowed to take full days off. The case, which was first reported by the South China Morning Post in March – less than two weeks after Allas received her dismissal letter – sparked outrage and prompted hundreds of people to donate more than HK$920,000 (US$118,000) to support her treatments through an online fundraising campaign. “I can’t even say how grateful I am. So many people have donated without even knowing me,” Allas said . In April, she won HK$30,000 (US$3,800) in compensation from her employer in a settlement of the case at the Labour Tribunal in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, the Equal Opportunities Commission has awarded her legal aid to fight a separate case in court, in which she intends to argue that is illegal to discriminate against someone who has a disability. “We are very happy to have their support as very few requests for legal aid are granted,” said Jessica Cutrera, a Hong Kong resident who has supported Allas. After undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments, Allas had surgery in the city and is now cancer free. She is currently in the Philippines and plans to find a new employer in Hong Kong next year. Labour experts and advocates noted that Allas’ ordeal was just the tip of the iceberg, with many cases going unnoticed. Migrant domestic workers who fall sick are often left with little support while trying to file a claim and taking their case to court. “This is really common ,” said University of Hong Kong’s principal lecturer David Bishop. “The main issue in Hong Kong is if you are terminated, it kills your visa and it takes you out of the health system. It’s a death sentence for many.” LONG BATTLES, LITTLE COMPENSATION Domestic workers are the slaves of modern Asia. Are Hongkongers, Singaporeans and Malaysians ever going to change? The plight of domestic workers seeking justice has also been highlighted in other Asian cities this year. For 10 months, Moe Moe Than – a 32-year-old migrant domestic worker in Singapore – was caned, kicked, barred from using the toilet, force-fed and ordered to eat her own vomit, and told that her relatives back in Myanmar could be killed if she complained. In March this year, her Singaporean employers were convicted of abuse – one was sentenced to almost four years in prison, and the other to two years. The couple had previously been to court for abusing another domestic worker from Indonesia. But although some cases reach the courts and convictions have been secured, advocates noted that a lot more still needed to be done. Sheena Kanwar, executive director of Singapore’s Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics, known as Home, said Than had to spend about four years in shelters in Singapore while her case was being handled by the authorities. That was about the length of her employers’ jail term. “The wait was so long that [it] somehow diluted the sense of justice. Such a tough journey and no compensation,” Kawar said. “There was no recognition of damages to [the workers], their loss of wages, their emotional trauma.” LOSING THEIR CHILDREN The invisible struggle: how thousands of female migrant workers lose their money and children every year While some face abuse in the countries where they work, many also need to deal with patriarchal rules back home. Thousands of women in Asia head overseas every year to feed their families, but later face betrayal from their husbands. Some are even stripped from their children and left with little money after they send it back home. Migrants and experts have urged source countries to ensure that migrant workers receive more support and are protected from laws and cultural rules that punish women. Eni Lestari, chairperson of the International Migrants Alliance, said the welfare of female migrant workers and their children remained one of the biggest issues that had gone unaddressed by authorities in Asia. “The governments do not have proper mechanisms, only isolated programmes to which most people don’t have access,” Lestari said. “The issues end up being handled in a familiar context and many children are left unattended.” Due to traditional norms and even laws, migrant women in Asia often face discrimination, and divorce is still a taboo in many societies. At the same time, the absence of pregnancy rights remains a problem in many of the countries where they work. In Singapore, for instance, domestic workers have to take pregnancy tests every six months. If they are found pregnant and decide to keep the baby, they end up being deported. “Does this mean that they want us to be celibate?” Lestari asked. “They are not only exploiting our labour, they are really exploiting women to the core.” INVISIBLE WORK Migrant domestic workers prop up Hong Kong’s economy, so why are they excluded? The importance of domestic workers to economies across Asia has also been largely ignored. A study released this year showed that Hong Kong’s migrant domestic workers last year contributed an estimated US$12.6 billion to the city’s economy, which represented 3.6 per cent of the city’s gross domestic product (GDP). Elsewhere in Asia, foreign domestic workers contributed US$8.2 billion to Singapore’s economy (2.4 per cent of GDP) and US$900 million to Malaysia’s (0.3 per cent of GDP). “ This is a hidden side of the economy and now we can put a number for the first time on the huge value of their care,” said Lucinda Pike, executive director of Hong Kong-based charity Enrich, which promotes the economic empowerment of migrant domestic workers. “Domestic work and caring for others is in many ways invisible work, behind closed doors,” she noted. The demand for paid domestic work is expected to grow as fertility rates remain low, populations age rapidly, and the shortage of affordable care services persists in many countries. Hong Kong alone has about 390,000 domestic workers – most of them women from the Philippines and Indonesia. But local authorities predict the city will need some 240,000 more domestic workers over the next three decades.