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Filipina domestic workers are being fired in Hong Kong for catching COVID


As COVID-19 rages in Hong Kong with nearly half a million cases in the last two weeks, the virus is infecting some of the city's domestic workers. Many are Filipino women, and as they fall ill, they are falling out of favor. NPR's Julie McCarthy reports.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Ambulances bearing stretchers continued to arrive at Hong Kong's hospitals over the weekend. Cases are coming down from a one-day high of 56,000 earlier this month. But the images surfacing are unsettling. A series of photographs shows corpses in body bags being stored beside the beds of recovering patients. In this, one of the most densely populated places in the world, the COVID-19 death rate is reported to be the highest in the world. Swept up in this calamity are Filipina domestic workers, who number more than 200,000, the largest such community of women working as nannies and maids in Hong Kong. Among them is 36-year-old Len-Len, a nickname she uses to conceal her identity. Boosted with Pfizer in January, Len-Len tested positive for COVID-19 in February. Cooking dinner at the boarding house where she now stays, Len-Len says she's lost more than her health.

LEN-LEN: (Speaking Tagalog).

MCCARTHY: At the end of a 14-day isolation away from the home where she lived and worked, Len-Len says her employer, a Hong Kong couple, told her time's up, come pack your things because you're terminated. A sole breadwinner for two children back in the Philippines, Len-Len begged the husband to relent, but the wife gave no quarter.

LEN-LEN: (Speaking Tagalog).

MCCARTHY: "You brought this virus to employers like us because you go out and don't take care of yourselves. We're scared of Filipinos like you," Len-Len recalled her saying. As women like Len-Len struggle, the Philippine government lauds them as heroes. They send billions back home in remittances. But Len-Len has had to borrow money and sell her cooking to get by and asks, if we're heroes, why am I in this state? Anthropologist Nicole Constable offers an explanation.

NICOLE CONSTABLE: It's part of a wider, unequal division of labor and a wider pattern of exploitation of mostly women.

MCCARTHY: Domestic workers in Hong Kong typically work six days a week earning $160. For that, they cook, clean, care for children and elderly relatives. Constables says, these women are subsidizing the Hong Kong economy.

CONSTABLE: Hong Kong is making out like bandits on the neighbor of these people. They don't have to open up more retirement centers. They don't have to provide more kindergartens. They don't have to provide all kinds of things that women actually do.

MCCARTHY: The Philippines consul general in Hong Kong, Raly Tejada, told NPR that, overall, Hong Kong treats Filipinos better than most other jurisdictions.

RALY TEJADA: I tell you, majority of our nationals here have very good employers. They care for them like they're part of the family.

MCCARTHY: Tejada says just 3 to 5 Filipinas have found themselves getting fired after getting COVID-19. But Cynthia Tellez, a missionary working decades on behalf of migrant workers in Hong Kong, says the number is far greater. She says 80% of employers felt no obligation to shelter a sick worker and that hundreds of women have had to brave nights outdoors.

CYNTHIA TELLEZ: You can find people who are left out in the park sleeping one or two nights already, some of them after being tested positive in a hospital.

MCCARTHY: Mary, who assigned herself that name to protect her identity, slept rough. Kicked out by her employer, she was forced to camp out here near a bus stop outside Queen Mary Hospital.

MARY: There's a bench there, so I stayed there overnight. No sleep for that night.

MCCARTHY: The next day, the workers rights group known as HELP rescued her and helped her collect the $200 stipend the Philippines is distributing to women who can prove their distress. Firing domestic help because they get sick is punishable with a hefty fine, a fact Hong Kong's labor secretary took pains to remind employers of in recent days. Mary says that warning may have played a role in her employer's change of heart when she invited her to come back. HELP's communication head, Avril Rodrigues, says since the start of the pandemic, there's also been a shortage of domestic workers. And employers don't want to wait months to replace the women they fired. Rodrigues knows at least a dozen women who have been asked to return. With responsibilities back home, she says they have little choice.

AVRIL RODRIGUES: So a lot of them are also considering going back to the same job, to the same employer who effectively pushed them into homelessness for so many days while they were not well.

MCCARTHY: When asked if she's happy about going back, Mary demurs. I'm happy, she says, about being COVID free. Julie McCarthy, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.