HONG KONG – As soon as Indonesian domestic worker Anisa discovered she was pregnant with her first child, her heart sank.
Having worked for 13 years in Hong Kong, she was terrified that her employer would fire her, jeopardizing her future and that of her unborn child.
Without a prized work contract Anisa would be homeless, since foreign domestic helpers cannot rent their own property and must live with their employers, according to the city’s labor laws.
The 37-year-old would also lose her visa to stay in Hong Kong — something she could not afford to do being the breadwinner for her family in Indonesia.
When Anisa finally mustered up the courage to tell her employer the news, her fears came to pass — not only was she unceremoniously sacked, she also endured a torrent of verbal abuse and bullying for keeping her baby.
“(My employer) would say awful things to me, calling me a dog and that I was giving birth to a dog, that my baby would be born mentally disabled, and without arms or legs,” said Anisa, who, like other maids interviewed, wanted to remain anonymous as she had overstayed her visa.
“She said everything you don’t want someone to say to you. It’s very hard to forget her words. I suffered a lot,” she said in Cantonese, quietly sobbing as her daughter, now one year old, played beside her at a migrant support center.
From nannies to cleaners, Asia Pacific has one of the largest shares of the world’s 67 million domestic workers, where more than 60 percent are denied any protection, the International Labour Organization says.
Hong Kong employs about 350,000 maids, mostly young women from impoverished families in countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia.
Although domestic workers generally have better protection in Hong Kong than in other parts of Asia, mistreatment in the city has come under scrutiny since 2014 when an Indonesian maid was beaten by her employer and burned with boiling water.
Many pregnant foreign domestic workers are also unlawfully fired, charities say, leading to homelessness and destitution, with some women selling sex to survive and at risk of exploitation and trafficking.
“In most industries, women become pregnant and continue to work. But why are so many foreign domestic workers fired when they get pregnant?” said social worker Jessica Chow from PathFinders, a charity that helps these women through legal aid, employment advice, abortion referrals and maternity classes.
In some cases, women find themselves unemployable because of an unplanned pregnancy resulting from sexual abuse, she said.
Chow said one of her clients, who was desperate for work and accommodation, became pregnant after she was enslaved and raped by a man who had offered her a room if she cleaned his house.
“This is how difficult it is for a young woman who has no place to stay. They start to take risks with whoever is friendly with them. She’s very vulnerable and people take advantage of her,” Chow told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Women from poorer, more traditional communities, who have little sex education, are often too ashamed to go home or tell their families about the baby and subsequent sacking, she said.
Without a job, domestic workers also lose access to social benefits like healthcare or food aid, and quietly slip through the cracks into destitution, Chow said, whose organisation has helped over 9,300 women and children in 2016 alone.
Undocumented, stateless children of foreign maids are particularly vulnerable to trafficking and poverty, she added, who encourages her clients to get birth certificates for their newborns from their home country, as well as Hong Kong.
Yet despite being born in Hong Kong, under immigration laws, children of foreign domestic helpers aren’t granted citizenship or permanent residency. Instead, their birth certificates only display the visa status of their parents.
For Anisa and her baby, neither have the right to stay in the Chinese-ruled city after her visa expired in July.
Should Anisa remain in Hong Kong illegally with her Bangladeshi partner of eight years, her child won’t get to access any benefits or go to school.
“I am so worried about her, but what can I do?” said Anisa, while her curly-haired daughter squealed and banged her toys.
Hong Kong’s Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) said it is against the law for employers to sack foreign domestic helpers for being pregnant.
“Just because a woman is pregnant, it does not mean she cannot perform her duties or is less effective at her work,” EOC spokeswoman Cindy Leung said in an email to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
She said it received just six pregnancy discrimination complaints from foreign maids between 2014 and 2016 — a figure campaigners say is a fraction of the number of pregnant women fired or mistreated.
The chance to take legal action against her former employer has given Filipina domestic helper Jo-Ann a small glimmer of hope, after she was fired in June for having a baby with her partner, also a domestic worker from the Philippines.
But while she waits for the outcome, the 33-year-old said potential employers still refuse to hire her, even though her child lives in the Philippines with her family.
“Maybe they think I’ll become pregnant again … for them I’ll be a burden for a few months,” said Jo-Ann, who has worked as a housekeeper in Hong Kong for seven years.
The pressure to financially support her family back home is so overwhelming, Jo-Ann said she battles with suicidal thoughts each night.
“Often times, because of anxiety, I feel like hurting myself,” she said, who has been living in an illegal boarding house with dozens of other foreign workers while she searches for work.
“But when I read in the newspaper of domestic workers committing suicide, I think, ‘What if this happens to me?’ I don’t want my family to see my dismembered body if I was hit by a car, or if I jumped off a building,” Jo-Ann said.
“But you just pretend everything is ok. I have no choice because I’m the eldest. I miss (my family), but I still need to work because it’s for them.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.