Discriminated for a Disability: A Domestic Worker’s Victory Against Wrongful Dismissal

December 23, 2020
Category: Cases

For those of us holding full-time jobs, we could never imagine a scenario when our employer would fire us for falling sick to a serious medical condition.  It would seem unethical and heartless, casting aside a worker just when she is in the most dire need. Unfortunately, migrant workers can face this very scenario whenever they fall sick.

Just a few days after she went for a medical procedure, domestic worker Nathalia (pseudonym) was terminated from employment without notice, and was soon forced to leave Hong Kong. However, with the help of JWB, Nathalia was able to secure the compensation she needed and hold her employers accountable, even as she focused on her treatment and recovery.

Falling ill on the job

Nathalia had left her home in the Philippines to work in Hong Kong in August 2016 in order to support her family financially and send her daughter to school. 

While still working for her employers in late 2018, Nathalia started to feel unwell. Subsequently, she went to the hospital for a checkup leading to the doctor scheduling a series of medical tests, all with her employers’ knowledge and consent.

In March 2019, Nathalia underwent an overnight colonoscopy at the hospital, after which she was given three follow-up appointments.  Yet less than a week after her procedure, Nathalia’s employers abruptly terminated her employment. 

Nathalia was stunned – even though she had to go on medical leave on occasion, she was working just as hard and fulfilling all her responsibilities to clean the house and take care of the family.  When pressed for the reason for her dismissal, her employer insisted that it was not due to her medical condition, but because they were unhappy with her over a separate matter.  In fact, they denied having any knowledge of her medical condition at all, even though she had been going to the hospital for her medical appointments in the preceding months while working for them.

What the brusque dismissal meant was that she would not be able to continue seeking treatment in Hong Kong, or be covered by her medical insurance.  Even more disheartening was that she would be going back to the Philippines without even knowing the results of her medical tests or what was wrong with her.  It seemed that her employers had no regard for her welfare at all, even though she had served them faithfully for more than two years.

A cry for help

Feeling despair, Nathalia reached out to HELP for Domestic Workers (HELP), one of JWB’s frontline partners in Hong Kong, for assistance.

Sadly, Nathalia was left with no choice but to return to the Philippines to get the care she needed. With HELP’s assistance, she was able to recover her termination entitlements and lodge a complaint for health-related discrimination at the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) before leaving Hong Kong, but could stay no further to see her full claim through. Back in the Philippines, Nathalia was dealt a second blow – she was diagnosed with cancer. Her life turned to treatments while her case languished in Hong Kong. 

Pursuing justice while on the road to recovery

Nathalia still wanted to pursue compensation for her loss and for the emotional harm her unfair termination had caused. This is when JWB stepped in, as HELP referred Nathalia’s case for cross-border assistance. The team at JWB began work on securing the rightful compensation she and her family badly needed, while Nathalia focused on getting better. 

Despite the EOC’s intervention, Nathalia’s employers refused to consider her claim or attend any of the conciliation meetings. Not only did they insist that they had never seen the medical records for the majority of her appointments until after her termination, but they also denied all knowledge of her follow-up appointments in March 2019. Finding substantial evidence to prove that her employers had actually seen her medical records was extremely challenging, given the lack of documentation. 

Thankfully, JWB and pro bono lawyers at our law firm partner Simmons and Simmons were able to press her case, despite these challenges. The employers finally came to the table, and together JWB and Simmons & Simmons helped Nathalia secure a settlement of more than HKD35,000 – the equivalent of around eight months of her wages back home. This made a huge difference for her while she underwent treatment. Not only did the settlement come at one of the lowest periods of her life, but she also succeeded in holding her former employers accountable for discrimination.

 “Nathalia inspired us. She fought for her rights from the beginning, through her medical treatments, and all the way until the end of her case. She is not only a fighter of cancer, but also a fighter for justice. She never stopped, no matter how taxing her situation was emotionally and physically. I’m so grateful to meet people as brave and strong as her, and I hope her story encourages more people to come forward to seek justice.”  -Nanor Wong, Legal Officer, JWB Hong Kong