Labouring beyond sight: How Covid-19 has affected migrant domestic workers and why it matters

August 26, 2021
Category: Commentary
Choi Hung Estate, Hong Kong

Picture this: you are stuck at home, everyone is in the house, and you are trying to do work. 

Sound familiar? For the desk-bound worker or student, work-from-home arrangements and school closures have become the new normal. 

Now imagine this: your work is increasingly scrutinized by your employer, you are overworked and underpaid, and you have little to no rest days. You are stressed. You are far from home, you cannot use your phone to contact your loved ones, you have trouble remitting money home, and you still have debts to pay. 

This is the reality for many migrant domestic workers. 

Covid-19 has exacerbated existing vulnerabilities: abuse, overwork and termination without income. Not all countries have clear laws that protect domestic workers, or regulations on maximum working hours and minimum pay. Working and living within their employers’ homes further hides any mistreatment from the public eye. 

Migrant domestic workers might be working out of sight, but the issues they face should not be out of mind. 

The Big Picture

According to the International Labour Organisation, around 55 million domestic workers worldwide face a higher risk of job and income loss due to Covid-19. Those who are informally employed are particularly vulnerable as they are not registered to social security, and have fewer protections and support schemes to reduce the impact of job loss. 

Formally employed domestic workers are no less spared from the economic impact of Covid-19. Lockdowns and movement restrictions mean domestic workers face greater difficulty engaging in work contracts abroad. Some are unable to fly to their country of work and find themselves terminated without being given their rightful severance payment. They may still be on the hook for agency fees. 

The situation looks no better for live-in domestic workers, which is required by law in Singapore and Hong Kong. Reports on the ground show that many are increasingly overworked and underpaid and are vulnerable to abuse. Movement restrictions also prevent workers from remitting money home, drying up a crucial source of financial support for the young and old back home. The impact of the pandemic extends from workers back home to their families. 

Mental and Physical Wellbeing 

Migrant domestic workers have been increasingly isolated from their friends and families due to Covid-19 movement restrictions. With city-wide and regional lockdowns, live-in workers cannot leave their employer’s house during rest days, minimising access to social and emotional support from peers. 

Speaking virtually to loved ones back home is not always an option either. With longer working hours and increased employer scrutiny, workers have less access to their phones – their sole point of contact with their friends and family in times of isolation. 

Some employers are also increasingly monitoring and micromanaging their workers, leading to greater workplace stress. Living and working under their employer’s roof makes migrant domestic workers more susceptible to abuse and exploitation. In 2020, Mission for Migrant Workers saw a 40% increase in ill-treatment cases (e.g. verbal abuse, sexual harassment, assault, etc.) in Hong Kong compared to 2019. 

Worryingly, seeking help is particularly hard. Workers are unable to seek help due to restrictions in their movement, which in some cases are imposed by their employers, not the law. Those who have restricted access to the phone or internet, or are under the constant scrutiny of their employers, are unable to report instances of abuse either. Some workers tolerate these toxic work conditions out of fear of having their employment terminated and being deported home. 

Overwork and fewer rest days 

With employers working from home and ongoing school closures, caregiving and household duties have increased for MDW’s. Furthermore, the distinction between rest and work is blurred as workers are required by law to live with their employers. 

In Singapore, 40% of migrant domestic workers surveyed in 2020 had fewer rest days, and 16% were given more work on their rest days. 

Likewise, 50% of migrant domestic workers reported having to work on their rest days, while 90% reported working longer hours. 

Financial Stress

No compensation for overtime work, and decreased or delayed salaries 

Despite working longer hours, MDW’s are not always compensated accordingly. Employers who face financial difficulties have delayed salary payments, or even decreased a worker’s pay. For migrant domestic workers, a decrease in pay in their country of work is a disproportionately larger sum of money in their home country. This means the decrease, delay or loss of income has a significant impact on workers and their families back home. 

Without the employment safeguards afforded to others, migrant domestic workers are all the more vulnerable to exploitation. 

Remitting money has become harder

Adding to the stress of lowered incomes, workers are facing difficulty remitting money home

In Singapore, 60% of workers surveyed could not remit money home as frequently, due to Covid-19 movement restrictions. 

Terminated with no income 

Migrant domestic workers who have their employment terminated are hit the hardest. These workers are unable to return home due to travel bans; they find themselves stuck in their host country for the foreseeable future. Most have to pay for their own accommodation and living expenses, due to the shortage of space and slow turnover rates at charity lodging facilities. 

Some workers who have returned home face another set of internal lockdowns and domestic travel restrictions. They remain in transit without income and are isolated from their families. They wait for weeks, even months and the uncertainty of returning home exacerbates pandemic- and finance-induced stress. 

Furthermore, some workers are terminated without receiving their rightful termination entitlements or outstanding salary payments. Recently, JWB helped Lisa, a Filipina migrant domestic worker, recover her final salary, termination entitlements and severance payment from her employers in Hong Kong. 

Lisa worked for a Hong Kong family for 9 years. During the early onset of Covid-19, Lisa’s employers advised her to postpone her flight back to Hong Kong due to travel restrictions. During this time, her employers terminated her contract for financial reasons, and claimed they no longer needed her service anymore. However, they violated Hong Kong labour laws by not paying Lisa her final salary, termination entitlements and severance payment. 

Fortunately, Lisa’s sister reached out to our frontline partner, HELP for Domestic Workers, who referred Lisa’s case to us. With the help of our pro bono lawyers from Gall Solicitors who represented Lisa, she received around HK$36,000 of compensation. 

Lisa is not the only domestic worker so affected. Sadly, employers like Lisa’s think that because workers cannot return to work due to travel bans, they can freely terminate their worker and skip paying any final payments they may owe. 

Why you should be concerned

Migrant domestic workers are often lifelines of support for their families back home. Many have young children or elderly parents to care for. Reduced or delayed income dries up remittances, seriously affecting them and their family’s livelihoods. 

Even when workers return home, employment prospects are bleak with the economic downturn. Most migrant domestic workers are not included in government relief packages and subsidies, and many are still expected to repay loans and employment agency fees. 

Furthermore, not all countries have clear regulations that protect domestic workers. For workers vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, these times are especially challenging. 

Domestic workers provide caregiving and household support. They are considered essential workers and should be treated with the same respect and dignity we would expect to be treated as employees.

What you can do

  1. If you hire a domestic worker, build a positive working relationship with them.
    You need to rest. So do domestic workers. Respect your workers’ need for a day off, downtime, and access to the internet so they can connect with their family and friends back home. Just like how rest helps you to do better at work, rest helps domestic workers to better adjust to working and living during the pandemic.
  2. Try to retain your worker. If circumstances do not permit, please prepare full outstanding payment for workers. The sooner you inform your workers, the more time they have to make preparations. 
  3. Look out for signs of ill-treatment and help victims of abuse seek help
    We have received referrals from employers of domestic workers, where workers knew of fellow workers being abused, and reported the incident to their employers. 
  4. Support migrant worker organisations by volunteering or donating

Organisations like ours, HOME, TWC2, Mission for Migrant Workers, HELP for Domestic Workers, and the important work they embark on often run on the tireless support of their volunteers. Look into such organisations and see how you can help! 

The Bottom Line

Covid-19 has altered the lives of many, including migrant domestic workers, who are far from home. They perform household and caregiving work for families abroad, and are lifelines of support for their own families back home. Let’s treat our workers with respect and dignity.



Mission for Migrant Workers 2020 Service Report

* Names changed to protect the client’s identity.