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Virus Travel Ban Keeps Thousands of Maids From Hong Kong Jobs

The Philippine ban on travel to Hong Kong is taking its toll on women and families in both economies

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Mimi Ysulat flew home to the Philippines for her mother’s funeral at the end of January. By the time she was ready to return to Hong Kong, where she’s worked as a maid and nanny for the past decade, she got another dose of bad news: in response to the coronavirus outbreak, the Philippine government had banned travel to the city, along with Macau and mainland China. 

Now the 48-year-old Ysulat is stuck in the Philippines for the foreseeable future, along with thousands of migrant workers, mostly women, who make up Hong Kong’s domestic labor force. “Helpers,” as they’re called, are critical to both economies. Having full-time, live-in childcare enables hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers — mostly women — to work outside the home; the money helpers send home to the Philippines contributes to more than $30 billion in remittances that comprise about 9% of the country’s gross domestic product.

With the coronavirus still spreading, there’s no telling when these women might be able to return to the families and households that rely on them. They’re worried they’ll lose their jobs, their income and their work permits. In a survey of more than 900 Filipina domestic workers in Hong Kong  by placement agency HelperChoice, almost half said they were affected by the travel ban or knew someone who was. 

Meanwhile, with Hong Kong’s schools, community centers and nurseries closed for another four weeks at least, families with absent helpers are scrambling to manage their own jobs in a childcare vacuum. “[Helpers] are actually integral to Hong Kong. Without them, the local community will not be able to go out and work,” said Edwina Antonio-Santoyo, executive director of Bethune House Migrant Women's Refuge, a charity that has been operating in the city since 1986. “There will be no one to take care of their children, take care of the elderly or to do the household chores.”