Foreign domestic workers who have their babies in Hong Kong exist in a legal gray area.
As long as they are employed, typically on two-year contracts, domestic workers have legal access to Hong Kong’s generous public health system, including facilities for childbirth.
But they are often fired, illegally, as soon as their employers learn they are pregnant – at which point they lose all access to the health system and have two weeks to find a new employer or face deportation. Once their employment contracts are terminated, the women often lack the time, resources and knowledge to defend themselves or source alternatives.
PathFinders helps mothers find ways to surmount their problems through a combination of legal advice, social support and confidence-building. But the first step is education – enabling them to learn about their rights within the Hong Kong system and how to access its public health system, as well as helping them locate the information all new mothers need.
Co-founder Kylie Uebergang spoke with Women & Girls Hub about how confidence-building enhances education for vulnerable mothers.
Women & Girls Hub: Hong Kong is a rich city, but foreign domestic workers make up a substantial subclass at the bottom of society. Can you describe the scale of the problem?
Kylie Uebergang: Hong Kong has about 340,000 domestic workers, around half Indonesian, half Filipina. Most are women between the ages of 20 and 50, many are single and all are without their families. In any cohort of women with these demographics, pregnancy will happen.
But if you are in Hong Kong as a domestic worker and have to stop working – often because you get fired when your employer discovers the pregnancy – you are blocked from access to medical care.
There are no official numbers on pregnancy among foreign domestic workers, perhaps because the babies often aren’t officially registered in the country of birth and they are allowed to re-enter their home country without official registration. Hong Kong just sends the mother home and it’s like it never happened.
Women & Girls Hub: Do women face challenges when they return home with their child?
Uebergang: When women leave Hong Kong, they are confident that they will be able to take care of their children, despite the fact that they are undocumented, mixed-race children. Often they don’t realize how strong the social stigma will be at home and that they will be unable to access their local welfare system [if the child’s birth wasn’t registered].
Women & Girls Hub: Why is education a pillar of your work?
Uebergang: If you know your legal rights in Hong Kong, there is a chance of fair treatment as a migrant mother and child. It [the legal system] is not going out of its way to be fair to migrant workers, but it will be responsive.
But you have to know those rights and how to access services that exist and can help you. We bring in experts to talk about legal rights, about dealing with the police, about dealing with employers, how to breastfeed children, about contraception.
Migrant mothers, like every new parent everywhere, want to get together to talk about the process – what to expect during pregnancy, what sort of tests you need to get, how to breastfeed, how to do the medical stuff, how to get a birth certificate.
Women & Girls Hub: What is key to making education for migrant working mothers effective?
Uebergang: We realized early on that part of the education process is helping women build up the confidence to use that education.
At the moment, we have a dance class, teaching expression through dance and the arts. From my perspective, one of the biggest assets of skills-building classes is that when the mothers get together, they talk, and through that, trust develops.
The concept of one-on-one counseling is very new to them, and they weren’t always talking in their first language with our caseworkers. But when you get them together [doing a craft], it frees them up to talk about themselves. This spills over so that when they are working with the case managers at PathFinders, they are much more ready to learn about things such as asserting their legal rights.
Women & Girls Hub: PathFinders provides opportunities for mothers to engage with each other. How is community-building important for pregnant migrant domestic workers?
Uebergang: Women are being told from the outset that to get pregnant in Hong Kong is illegal: It’s a sin and it’s illegal.
When a woman comes to one of [our programs], instead of carrying her social stigma as her own burden, there she in a room with dozens of other expectant mothers; I think it’s a joyful occasion. That is a really important part of making the educational process successful.
Yes, it can be noisy and rowdy and sometimes more of a social thing, but without this community as a base they wouldn’t have the confidence to ask questions.