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How to Better Support Domestic Workers During COVID-19

Given new challenges posed by the pandemic, Enrich HK’s Esther Guevara shared advice for those who employ a foreign domestic worker. By Morgan M Davis

Domestic Helper in Hong Kong (Photo: May James / AFP)

Most people could use a financial refresher course in the best of times, let alone a pandemic. And financial planning is even more essential for those whose purse strings are stretched a bit tighter, such as Hong Kong’s foreign domestic workers (FDWs).

Esther Guevara, a financial planning trainer at Hong Kong charity Enrich HK, joined the FCC for a Zoom session on 17 January entitled “A Personal Finance Workshop for Domestic Helpers”, in which she outlined the major financial stressors impacting FDWs during the pandemic.

Many migrant workers have come under increased pressure to send more funds home than usual, due to family members who are ill, unemployed or underemployed, says Guevara. On top of this, workers are also concerned about layoffs, isolation, mental health challenges and potential exposure to the virus.

During her FCC workshop, Guevara focused on the how-to of financial management for FDWs, but also shared a number of tips for employers as well. In a conversation after the webinar, Guevara emphasised the importance of a trustful, supportive employer-employee relationship where both parties acknowledge the new challenges posed by the pandemic and check in with each other regularly.

“This is the time when there shouldn’t be a barrier. Yes, you’re going through a crisis, but your employee is [also] going through a crisis and sometimes [you] don’t know about it,” says Guevara, alluding to the fact that many FDWs may not share any details about what’s going on behind the scenes – their family or financial situation – if an employer does not inquire.

“The problem with employer-employee relationships is sometimes that [FDWs] are very shy or proud,” says Guevara, noting that many would not ask for help unsolicited. An FDW also may not be comfortable sharing, even if an employer asks about their personal struggles.

Even so, Guevara suggests that employers try to maintain an open, non-judgemental dialogue. Start by asking how the FDW is faring in light of the international health crisis. It’s likely they may be feeling isolated due to social restrictions, anxious about catching the virus, worried about family members back home, or facing greater financial pressures. By asking specific questions about family, friends or how the pandemic has impacted the worker, employers can get a better sense of their wellbeing.

Guevara says such conversations are less about additional financial support, although that is an option if it is well thought out and discussed, and more about connecting with an employee as a person – offering an opportunity to voice concerns about an unemployed spouse, sick parent, or child at home without a laptop for virtual classes.

Esther Guevarra Enrich HK’s financial planning trainer, Esther Guevara, shared her tips with FCC members on 17 January.

“As an employer, you can help them process it and break it down,” says Guevara. She also recommends mapping out short- and long-term financial goals together, which can help workers feel more in control.

Have they made a plan to meet their family’s immediate needs? How much do they need to set aside for long-term goals, like sending a child to school or starting a business in their home country later in life? What about retirement? Talking about budgeting – how much money can be saved, sent home or spent – and timelines can empower workers and alleviate some stress.

“Migrant domestic workers are vulnerable to financial scams and get trapped in a cycle of debt,” says Guevara. “We believe that financial and empowerment education is a life-changing solution to challenges faced widely by migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong.”

Additionally, Guevara recommends giving FDWs plenty of space and time to be alone. If a worker lives in your home, it is easy to fall into an unhealthy pattern where he or she starts working longer hours while Covid-19 social restrictions remain in place. However, workers need time off – perhaps even more than usual – due to the unprecedented emotional, mental and financial strains caused by the pandemic.

If as an employer you are concerned about an FDW seeing their friends in public and possibly exposing themselves to the virus, Guevara recommends clear communication around expectations while referring to Hong Kong’s latest guidelines.

“When you have an employer and employee living in the same household, trust and communication are key,” she says. “If difficult conversations need to be had, whether it’s about finances or social distancing, we always advise employers to adopt a calm, non-judgemental approach.”

For more information or guidance, Enrich HK runs workshops for both employers and FDWs. The charity’s advisers can also answer questions about social security schemes and retirement planning for workers in Hong Kong.

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