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Jakarta Post

The coronavirus outbreak and the plight of migrant workers

  • Analiza Perez-Amurao
    Analiza Perez-Amurao

    Assistant professor and currently the chair of Mahidol University International College’s Humanities and Language Division

Salaya, Thailand   /   Fri, February 21, 2020   /   04:19 pm
The coronavirus outbreak and the plight of migrant workers A police officer in protective gear (right) addresses a resident of Hong Mei House at Cheung Hong Estate on Feb. 11, 2020 in Hong Kong. (AFP/Anthony WALLACE)

Among those identified as "vulnerable" amid the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak are migrant workers, particularly low-skilled workers. Overseas workers across the region are among the many who are bearing the brunt of the impacts from the global health emergency.

Hong Kong’s foreign domestic workers, for example, have a number of complaints. International Migrants Alliance chairperson Eni Lestari said that many domestic workers in the Chinese territory were not allowed to take a day off and were still tasked with going out to the market to shop for household items.

This is despite the fact that the Hong Kong Labour Department has called on foreign domestic helpers (FDHs) to remain indoors on their days off “to reduce the risk of the spread of the novel coronavirus in the community”. However, the appeal, which is backed by Chief Executive Carrie Lam, has been called “unfair and discriminatory” by the International Migrants Alliance Hong Kong & Macau advocacy group.

Eman Villanueva, spokesperson of the Asian Migrants Coordinating Body, said, “When you target a specific group of people, it becomes a very different thing. It sends the wrong signal that if you allow them to go out and gather, it is a danger to society.”

At the time of writing, an estimated 211,000 of all FDHs in Hong Kong hailed from the Philippines, the single largest migrant work group in the region.

Filipino workers are made to queue for masks for hours by their employers, yet those masks are meant only for their employers’ use. A domestic helper who requested anonymity remarked, “It’s like we don’t deserve protection.”

The Hong Kong edition of The Sun reported that Filipino workers staged a protest to appeal to their employers to provide them with masks, rubbing alcohol and other antiseptics to help protect them from the virus. Johanie Tong, a representative of Mission for Migrant Workers, advocated that no one should be behind during the outbreak.

Fear over job loss and unemployment also haunts foreign migrant workers in Hong Kong.

Bethune House cofounder and Mission for Migrant Workers head Cynthia Abdon-Tellez reported that the contracts of several FDHs were discontinued because their employers had decided to leave Hong Kong. Even employers who remained in the territory were telling their domestic workers return to their home countries until the crisis had passed.

“Those workers are the breadwinners for their family. How can we continue to support our siblings that are in school, how can we continue supporting our sick parents or sick husbands? Not only that, how are we going to buy food for our family? Maybe we’re free from the coronavirus outbreak in Hong Kong, but we’re going to die of hunger,” said Shiela Tebia, the vice chair of United Filipinos in Hong Kong.

Other workers, however, reported that they were unable to leave Hong Kong. “The bosses do not give them their full wages or control their passports, IDs or other documents. That’s why some workers cannot return home, even though they want to leave,” said a migrant worker.

With constant exposure outdoors and lack of access to healthcare, domestic workers face a greater risk of contracting the coronavirus.

The first Indonesian national to test positive for COVID-19 is a 44-year-old domestic worker in Singapore who has no history of traveling to mainland China. 

“But she works for a Singaporean employer who has also been confirmed with coronavirus infection,” the Indonesian Embassy in Singapore stated.

Stranded amid travel bans

Filipino migrant workers who were back in the Philippines on leave and newly hired workers waiting to be deployed overseas when the outbreak emerged have also been affected, as the Philippine government recently declared a travel ban for China, Hong Kong and Macau.

The ban affects an estimated 25,000 Filipino migrant workers: 10,000 who were on home leave and 15,000 who were waiting to travel to their new jobs abroad.

At a press briefing in Malacañang, Philippine Bureau of Immigration spokesperson Dana Sandoval explained that “there is no distinction between visa types in the directive for a travel ban. So all Filipino nationals who are in the country will not be allowed to depart for China, Hong Kong and Macau”.

As a result, the travel ban also affects those transiting through the three countries to their final destinations. For those who were due to depart to Hong Kong and Macau, their worries concern not just the costs of their unexpected delay in departure, but also the prospect of losing their jobs in their destination country.

A day after the Philippine government declared the two-way travel ban, Betty Yung Ma Shan-yee, the chairwoman of the Hong Kong Employers of Overseas Domestic Helpers Association, said that she had received numerous calls for help.

Recruitment consultant Emmanuel Geslani said that the Philippine government “should issue an exemption for [the domestic workers] to return to their jobs or [they could] lose them, if the government insists on the general order on all Filipinos traveling to China and the administrative regions”.

Alfredo Palmiery, the president of the Society of Hong Kong Accredited Recruiters of the Philippines (SHARP), added: “Filipino domestic helpers from Hong Kong and Macau may lose their jobs if the travel ban and lack of flights to those regions is not resolved by the end of February.”


One thing for sure is that the COVID-19 outbreak has ensued in chaos of different forms and shapes in different parts of the world. While scientists are racing to develop a vaccine and governments are scrambling to determine how to manage the outbreak, healthy people – including migrant workers – have not escaped the disruption it has caused.

It can be easy to lose track of priorities in the midst of this chaos. Amid the desperate attempts of governments to address the situation, it has become apparent that the circumstances of migrant workers are negligible.

It is crucial for states to remember, however, that neglecting or playing down the needs of migrant workers, who play a vital role in supporting society’s needs, could very well start another kind of affliction.


The writer is Assistant Professor and Chair of the Humanities and Language Department at Mahidol University International College in Salaya, Thailand. In addition to The Jakarta Post, she has written for other news outlets including the Asia Times and Rappler, as well as academic publishers like the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Time Taylor International and the Mahidol University Press. She writes on regional issues related to language education, cultural studies and migration studies.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.