Nearly everyone in the Philippines is related to or knows someone, who is an Overseas Filipino Worker or an OFW. Being far from home is challenging, even if living somewhere else potentially gives you access to higher paying jobs, healthcare and education systems. Just because someone lives in a foreign country doesn’t mean they don’t struggle with similar issues to the ones faced while living in the Philippines. I have wondered if OFWs struggle with unplanned pregnancies the same way Pinays do at home. So, I started asking questions.
Last month I traveled to Hong Kong and met with Jessica Chow, Co-Director of Services with a local organization called PathFinders. Their mission is, “To ensure that the most vulnerable children born in Hong Kong, and their migrant mothers, are respected and protected.” The Philippines has a large number of migrant workers in Hong Kong, a great majority of whom are female domestic workers in their 20s and 30s. Since most Filipinos grow up without sex education, these migrant workers also don’t know much about reproductive health, and when they enter into sexual relationships, they don’t use contraception and often become pregnant. Filipinas make up the second largest group of migrant workers that PathFinders supports (the largest group being Indonesians).
PathFinders provides holistic programming, including shelter (homeless services), supplies (clothes and supplies for babies), healthcare, access to justice through a legal team, and education and outreach on how to prevent unplanned pregnancies.
Their services are sorely needed by our Pinays abroad because most domestic workers have visas that are dependent on living with their employer. While it is illegal for employers to fire their helpers because they are pregnant, this happens regularly. If their employers terminate their contracts, they become homeless and lose their rights to live and work in Hong Kong after two weeks. In theory, Hong Kong has good protections for migrant workers but services can be hard to access.
Hong Kong has a population of only 7 million, and 360,000 people (5%!) are domestic workers. Because Filipinas speak English, they often find employment with English-speaking households and are often compensated more than the minimum wage, which is HK$4,410 or roughly P29,000 per month. Their contracts require their employers to provide them with a food allowance, and other necessities including warm clothing. Because many expenses are covered, women are able to send around HK$2,000 or P13,000 home each month. This is money that their families depend on. Losing a job means leaving Hong Kong to return home—something most women aren’t keen to do. As such, some Filipinas do resort to abortions when they have an unplanned pregnancy. Abortion is legal in Hong Kong, though PathFinders stated that only about 5-10% of their clients opt for them. Another 5% of their clients give their children up for adoption, and the remaining clients keep their babies.
If pregnant domestic workers retain their employment throughout their pregnancy, they can access free prenatal care and can deliver in hospitals at very low costs. However, no public antenatal clinics are open on Sundays, and when women are hiding their pregnancies from their employers, they cannot ask for days off to have check-ups. Thus, most of them do not access prenatal care until late in their pregnancies when they can no longer hide the fact that they’re with child. To address this, PathFinders has identified some private doctors who hold clinic seven days a week in order to accommodate domestic workers, at an affordable price.
If women who are pregnant lose their jobs, they immediately become homeless and can no longer access any free government services. Fortunately, Pinays have strong social networks and can often move from place to place when they need somewhere to stay. Sadly, some women endure domestic violence from their partners but put up with it if they can provide shelter or money.
Once the domestic worker has her baby, the baby has the same visa status as her, so if she is overstaying her visa, her baby is also overstaying. They are then granted no rights or protections unless they seek asylum. If an asylum claim is confirmed and accepted, the domestic worker and her baby are given a chance to relocate to a country that accepts refugees or asylum seekers. However, the global refugee population is much larger than the numbers countries typically accept annually. Thus the asylum process can take a few years but during that time the Hong Kong government provides support and protections. However, Jessica noted that in their experience, most asylum claims of former domestic workers are rejected, and once their claims are denied, they are sent back to their country of origin by the Immigration Department of Hong Kong.
In Hong Kong, childcare services are hard to find – this is part of the reason why 10% of Hong Kong households employ a domestic helper. Often, if the Pinay workers are not fired, they send their babies home to the Philippines for someone else to raise them or they go home with the baby or while they are still pregnant. While worker visas have a condition of live-in employment, employers are under no obligation to house babies, and they usually don’t.
I asked whether women could access contraception easily and Jessica told me that pills are easily accessible as they are sold over the counter without prescriptions. She also noted that it is easy to access condoms. Pinays living abroad generally prefer pills to other methods, and this is the same in the Philippines. However, sometimes women don’t want to use contraception because employers can find their pills and get angry at them for being, “naughty girls”. There aren’t implant providers in Hong Kong, and IUDs are difficult to get because they require a doctor’s appointment and two to three follow up visits, which helpers cannot do since they cannot take days off. Thus, women oftentimes don’t use any contraception and become pregnant.
No matter where Pinays are living, issues around high unplanned pregnancies, low contraceptive usage and a lack of sexual health knowledge, persist. How can we better equip Filipinas to realize their futures and plan their pregnancies?
For returning domestic workers, Jessica and I agreed to work together to create a network of service providers who can support these women when they come home, so they understand their bodies and reproductive health. Equally important is that women and young people need to be taught about their sexual and reproductive health before they find themselves in these challenging situations… whether they’re staying in the Philippines or living abroad.
To learn more about PathFinders’ amazing work, please see http://www.pathfinders.org.hk/public/our-mission/
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