Delivering maternity rights to Hong Kong’s migrant workers
Forced to resign or unlawfully fired when pregnant, migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong lose both income and access to public healthcare. Awareness of legal maternity protections can end this power imbalance.
Domestic workers unable to return to their home country face immediate homelessness and a high risk of their children becoming undocumented.
Photo: HELP for Domestic Workers
After six years as a migrant domestic worker in Hong Kong, supporting her family back home in the Philippines, Marian Soriano* took up a new job caring for a couple’s two young children, dog, and home while they went to work. Under Hong Kong law, she was required to live in the family’s home, but Soriano did not mind. “I was so blessed to have this employer,” she says. “They treated me like their own family.”
Soon the family asked Soriano if they could hire her husband also, as they believed the workload was too heavy for one person. Several months later, Soriano’s husband arrived from their home in Isabela province, and a few months after that she became pregnant unexpectedly. “I was taking contraceptives at that time, so it was a blessing, a gift from God,” Soriano says.
Her employers, however, were worried—about who would look after their children and how they would cope with a newborn in their home. “They felt sad because they didn't expect it to happen,” Soriano says. “Their mind was closed, and they could not understand my situation.”
Like all female workers in Hong Kong, domestic workers cannot be dismissed due to pregnancy. So Soriano’s employers gave her a choice: she could terminate the pregnancy, or they would terminate her husband’s contract. “I didn't want to abort my baby, so they terminated my husband, and I kept working for them," she says.
What happened next is a familiar story in one of the world’s wealthiest cities, where domestic workers are among the most disenfranchised groups. Soriano says she “didn’t know where to go or who could help me, or the regulations”, so she relied on her employers for information, and they abused her trust.
While Soriano’s employers allowed her to attend check-ups and other pregnancy-related healthcare appointments, as required by law, they compelled her to work until the day her daughter was born and return to work barely a week later—despite being entitled to 10 weeks of paid maternity leave at the time (which has since been extended to 14 weeks for all Hong Kong women). She eventually left Hong Kong for South Korea and a better-paid position as a domestic worker. Her daughter was cared for by extended family in the Philippines.
"There is a need to look after the pregnant worker, but employers believe the worker should be serving the employers, not the other way around. That's the burden the employer doesn't like to face."
Once a domestic worker’s pregnancy is announced or discovered, she is often mistreated, which affects her health and that of her unborn baby. Like Soriano’s husband, many domestic workers are forced to resign or unlawfully fired. Their work visa expires after two weeks and they no longer qualify for public healthcare and maternity protections, which impacts their access to pre- and postnatal medical care.
Domestic workers unable to return to their home country—perhaps for fear of persecution for being an unemployed, single mother, often with a mixed-race child—face immediate homelessness and a high risk of their children becoming undocumented, stateless, and bereft of access to essential services.
Mapping power imbalance
Each month, PathFinders, an NGO in Hong Kong, supports 15-20 domestic workers who are either pregnant or new mothers, says CEO Catherine Gurtin. “We suspect it's the tip of the iceberg, and that there are women who are resigning or being forced to leave their positions without knowing we're there to help.”
Rachel Li, head of case management and research at HELP for Domestic Workers, a non-profit that empowers domestic workers to receive fair and equal treatment in Hong Kong, agrees, stating that mistreatment of pregnant domestic workers “is unfortunately quite common, based on our anecdotal observation”.
"There is a real disincentive for a migrant domestic worker to find out that she is unwell. It’s connected to the central problem that if you're really unwell, you could get fired. "
In extreme cases, Gurtin says, some domestic workers overstay their visa for decades and raise children “in the shadows of Hong Kong” with no access to healthcare or education.
It’s impossible to gauge the true scale, she says, “because we can't get access to details on the number of migrant workers who give birth in Hong Kong hospitals”. According to government departments concerned, “the data is not collected”.
Gurtin says poor understanding of employment laws among domestic workers and employers is a significant contributor to the problem. A 2022 PathFinders survey found just half of employers are aware domestic workers are eligible for maternity leave, while 100% of employers believe employment agencies should provide assistance in the event of a pregnancy.
“It may be that employers terminate the contract, or even their agency, which also may not know, encourages them to do so, and therefore they break the law,” Gurtin says.
Central, too, is the fact that domestic workers—colloquially referred to as ‘helpers’ or ‘jeh jeh’, ‘sister’ in Cantonese—are a critical source of support for many Hong Kong households. In the 1970s, Hong Kong transitioned from a labour to a service economy and became a popular destination for migrant domestic workers from lower income countries like the Philippines and Indonesia. The arrangement is said to facilitate greater economic participation in Hong Kong, especially among women, and at the same time allow the source countries to benefit from overseas remittances.
Working hours in Hong Kong are among the longest in the world, daycare services are noticeably lacking, and elderly care is in short supply. An estimated 340,000 migrant domestic workers now live and work in the city of 7.3 million people, contributing 3.6% of GDP. They cook, clean, shop for groceries, and run household errands while taking charge of child and elderly care—for a minimum monthly salary of HKD$4,730 (US$603), lower than the statutory minimum wage for local employees (HKD$6,933 (US$885) for a 40-hour week). The overwhelming majority of them are women and 90% are of childbearing age. Many are their family’s primary breadwinner.
“The need is forecast to rise to over 600,000 by 2047 to care for an ageing population, so we're about to double our reliance on this workforce,” Gurtin says.
The trouble is that when a domestic worker falls pregnant, her employer—who boasts an average household income of HKD$53,000 (US$6,767), according to PathFinders—is required to cover the first 10 weeks of maternity leave at 80% of regular wages. The government subsidises the remaining four weeks. There is also a legal obligation to house the domestic worker during pregnancy and maternity leave under the ‘live-in’ rule, but not her baby.
“The job precarity of domestic workers is very high because employers are easily able to unilaterally terminate any work permit holder and send them home. That makes them likely to hide their pregnancies or do almost anything to keep their jobs, often at the expense of their health.”
An even bigger issue, often, for employers is the need for an alternative hand to care for the children or the elderly during the 14-week maternity leave period. “The only real viable current solution is hiring a local domestic worker, but they won't work the same hours and they won't live in your home,” Gurtin says. “Financially, it's an enormous cost for the average household.”
Nevertheless, Marites Palma, a migrant domestic worker who runs Social Justice for Migrant Workers, an online platform that helps domestic workers assert their rights, says the practice of unlawfully terminating contracts and forcing domestic workers to resign due to pregnancy, as well as impeding their access to healthcare and maternity leave, speaks to the fundamental power imbalance between employers and domestic workers.
“There is a need to look after the pregnant worker, but employers believe the worker should be serving the employers, not the other way around. That's the burden the employer doesn't like to face,” says Palma, who is from the Philippines and has lived in Hong Kong for almost 20 years.
“When the worker is pressured to terminate the contact, she will surely do it because she feels like an ant facing the dragon.”
Facing fear and barriers to care
Domestic workers who remain in Hong Kong during pregnancy retain access to the public healthcare system, but significant systemic barriers can impede this entitlement, says Dr Lucy Jordan, associate professor in the Department of Social Work and Social Administration at The University of Hong Kong.
“So much of it is about who the employer is, and whether the employer, who basically has control over the domestic worker's schedule to a certain extent, will permit the person to be where they need to be in order to get the care that they need to get,” she says.
"If we are bringing in low-wage migrant workers to carry out work that the local population doesn't want to do, then we have to be prepared to give them social protections."
Plus, the healthcare system can be difficult to navigate even for the Cantonese speakers who have grown up in Hong Kong, let alone migrants from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. “It's there, but the issue is whether she can access it and access it with ease,” Jordan says.
Dr Sujata Visaria, associate professor in the Department of Economics and director of the Center for Economic Policy at The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, says many domestic workers are unfamiliar with the Hong Kong healthcare system, preferring to save health checks and medical appointments for when they return to their home countries for a brief stay at the conclusion of each two-year employment contract. This can mean women are reluctant to access healthcare in the event of a pregnancy.
“There is a real disincentive for a migrant domestic worker to find out that she is unwell,” Visaria says. “It’s connected to the central problem that if you're really unwell, you could get fired. An employer is not supposed to fire you for medical reasons, but it's very easy to just say, ‘she's not working very hard’.”
Working without a safety net
Despite the hardships faced by domestic workers in Hong Kong, it is still widely regarded as the best place to work in Asia, thanks to its official employment contract, legislated minimum monthly wage, and weekly day off—which are not offered in many other locations.
According to a 2016 report by the International Labour Organization, there are an estimated 3.34 million migrant domestic workers in the Asia-Pacific region, mostly in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, and South Korea. Key source countries include the Philippines, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, and, more recently, Vietnam.
In Singapore—another of the world’s wealthiest cities and Hong Kong’s main financial centre rival—migrant domestic workers are not permitted to become pregnant or give birth. “It is actually illegal for female migrant workers to be pregnant,” says Jaya Anil Kumar, senior manager of research and advocacy at the Singapore-based Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME). “When they are found to be pregnant their employers are almost immediately asked [by the government] to send them home.”
Between 2019 and 2021, an average of 170 migrant domestic workers were found to be pregnant each year, according to Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower. To avoid detection, Kumar says, domestic workers may hide their pregnancy or perform, or attempt to perform, self-induced abortions, often with shocking health consequences.
“They may get pills from people who are not doctors,” she says. “The job precarity of domestic workers is very high because employers are easily able to unilaterally terminate any work permit holder and send them home. That makes them likely to hide their pregnancies or do almost anything to keep their jobs, often at the expense of their health.”
Kumar says a core issue is that domestic workers in Singapore are not seen as employees because domestic work is not regarded as formal work.
“Domestic workers are not included under the Employment Act, and the government itself says it's because domestic work is slightly different from other forms of work. This perpetuates in the mind of the average employer, so they don't see their domestic worker as an employee in their own right.”
Actualising the rights of domestic workers
An obvious first step to reducing inequity in Singapore is removing the illegality of pregnancy, “so domestic workers don't resort to harmful forms of abortion or hiding their pregnancies”, Kumar says.
“If we are bringing in low-wage migrant workers to carry out work that the local population doesn't want to do, then we have to be prepared to give them social protections.”
In Hong Kong, the existence of rights for domestic workers means “there's the possibility of those rights being actualised”, Jordan says. Making it easier to navigate the healthcare system by, for example, providing interpreters and making sure clinics and family planning services are open on Sunday—the only day off for most domestic workers each week—are practical solutions that can improve access more generally as well as during pregnancy, Visaria says.
A compulsory insurance product that covers employers for maternity leave pay and “doesn't cost the world” would reduce the financial burden for employers and, thereby, the likelihood of illegally terminating a pregnant domestic worker or forcing her to resign, Gurtin says. Health insurance for domestic workers that covers pregnancy, Kumar says, is a logical next step for Singapore once the ban on pregnancy is removed.
“This [the migrant domestic workers] is a disenfranchised community, and the more the next generation understands, values, cares, and respects domestic workers, the less likely the workers are subjected to disrespect, marginalisation, and discrimination.”
To address the question of who cares for children or the elderly when a domestic worker is on maternity leave, there is support for the provision of a temporary, live-in relief worker scheme where a company employs domestic workers on two-year contracts and places them on shorter-term contracts. It is a model already in place in Singapore and Taiwan for elderly care and a solution the PathFinders survey found is preferred by 44% of Hong Kong employers.
“With imagination, a commitment to finding solutions, and public-private partnership we could create a good model, not just for maternity leave but also sick leave or any type of leave where you rely heavily on the worker,” Gurtin says.
Introducing a temporary worker scheme would require changes to the existing two-year contractual term and live-in regulations. “But it's not like this doesn't exist—it exists right next door in Singapore,” Visaria says. “We could come up with something that works for Hong Kong.”
Ultimately, policy changes that improve job security during pregnancy are most effective, Gurtin says. “If a worker can maintain her employment contract, she still has access to public services, including healthcare. She then gets 14 weeks of maternity leave where she can nurture and care for her baby; and if she chooses to leave the child [in her home country] and return to work, she has that option.”
Introducing a temporary worker scheme may reduce the likelihood of illegally terminating a pregnant domestic worker or forcing her to resign.
Changing attitudes shape positive behaviour
Shifts in policy are made easier when the social environment is responsive, and the good news is that the younger generations of Hong Kong employers—in many cases, the first generation raised by domestic workers—are increasingly more empathetic and compassionate.
“People are becoming more aware about the barriers faced by domestic workers, especially post termination,” Li says. “A few years ago, there was a case where a cancer patient was terminated and that caused a lot of reaction from society. It is a very good sign that people are becoming more aware of these issues.”
Gurtin agrees that younger people are key agents of change. “This [the migrant domestic workers] is a disenfranchised community, and the more the next generation understands, values, cares, and respects domestic workers, the less likely the workers are subjected to disrespect, marginalisation, and discrimination.”
Domestic workers, too, are standing up for themselves and their rights with the help of programmes like PathFinders’ ambassador programme, which empowers domestic workers as community leaders, and organisations like Palma’s Social Justice for Migrant Workers.
“Knowing their rights, that they have the right to get pregnant here in Hong Kong, makes workers stronger to defend themselves and better able to talk to their employer when they get pregnant,” Palma says.
“You can be strong if you know what you are talking about.”
*Name changed at interviewee’s request