Death of Filipino helper whose chronic illness could have been treated with medication puts focus back on conditions for domestic workers in Hong Kong

Peace Chiu
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Death of Filipino helper whose chronic illness could have been treated with medication puts focus back on conditions for domestic workers in Hong Kong

Filipino Maristel Pepito, 35, worked in Hong Kong for barely half a year before she died in hospital on February 18.

Now friends and family members say her brief time in the city as a domestic worker was marked by long hours at work, insufficient food and rest, and a lack of care from her employers when she fell seriously ill.

Her employers deny any wrongdoing. Contacted by the Post, a representative of the family said police would not have let them go if they had mistreated Pepito while she worked at their Tai Po home.

They declined to say more, as the episode had come to an end and “everyone was very upset” by what happened.

Pepito, who is survived by her husband and three children aged 16, 15 and 11, arrived in Hong Kong last August.

A distant cousin, Susan Polo, who works as a helper in Hong Kong, said Pepito told her she needed to work to put her children in good schools, especially as her husband did not earn a lot as a construction worker and they had financial difficulties.

“She was a very loving mother, who did this job and sacrificed for the family,” said Polo, who spoke to Pepito on the phone almost every day and met her occasionally.

She was a very loving mother, who did this job and sacrificed for the family

Susan Polo, Maristel Pepito’s cousin

She said Pepito had spoken about not getting enough food and rest, but did not dare consider breaking her contract as she needed the money.

“Once, she told me that her employer gave her expired food, such as chicken and cookies,” Polo said.

A source, who was part of a church group that helped Pepito in her final days in Hong Kong, also recalled her having to spend her own money to buy food during her first month in the city.

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The situation did not improve much after Pepito raised the matter with her employers, the source added. There was a month when she was given rice, 12 small hot dog sausages, a 4kg piece of pork and three bunches of green beans to prepare her own meals. The family ate at home only about three evenings a week.

The church member also recalled Pepito saying she worked 16 hours a day and sometimes did not have a full day off. She worked in a four-storey high-end property and there was a lot of washing and ironing because the family comprised six adults.

Pepito’s situation took a turn for the worse when she was hospitalised in January with pneumonia and signs of lupus, a chronic autoimmune illness, the church member said.

She was still feeling weak and coughing when she was discharged in early February, after 17 days in hospital. But just two weeks later, on February 16, the source said Pepito called to say she was coughing blood, but her employer was busy and told her to get help from others.

The church member said she called for an ambulance to take Pepito to hospital, where she died two days later. She was shocked because doctors had told her Pepito’s condition could be treated with medication.

Hong Kong’s Filipino community urged to focus on health

She was still upset when she recalled that about eight hours lapsed between the time Pepito asked her employers for help and the arrival of an ambulance.

Pepito’s body was sent back to her hometown of Baybay in Leyte province last month.

Polo said it was sad Pepito’s children had to go through the ordeal of her sudden death.

“Who would expect that the mother would come home like that?” she said. “They are all grieving.”

Philippine consul Roderico Atienza said the consulate could not comment on Pepito’s case as it was still collecting relevant documents.

He said the consulate on average received reports of three to five deaths per month in the past year. Given that around 210,000 of the 230,000 Filipinos in Hong Kong are domestic workers, Atienza believed those who died were predominantly maids.

He said Philippine authorities had raised the matter a couple of times with their Hong Kong counterparts, including suggesting annual health checks for these workers.

Last month, news of a Filipino domestic worker who was dismissed by her Hong Kong employers because she was suffering from stage three cervical cancer left many shocked.

Foreign domestic workers who are fired have to leave Hong Kong within two weeks. They also lose their right to access free medical care, which all residents are entitled to.

Baby Jane Allas, a 38-year-old single mother of five, received help to crowdfund more than HK$800,000 (US$102,500) and begin her chemotherapy treatment. At the Labour Tribunal on April 15, she reached a settlement of HK$30,000 with her former employer.

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Dolores Balladares-Pelaez, spokeswoman for the Asian Migrants Coordinating Body, noted many domestic workers faced hard working conditions including long hours and insufficient food.

“Many are also afraid that their employers might get angry or their services might be terminated if they go to clinics or hospitals when they are not feeling well,” she said.

As such, many self-medicate and only find out their illness is serious when their condition worsens and they are hospitalised.

Police said Pepito’s case is being dealt with by the Miscellaneous Enquiries subunit of Tai Po Division, but there is no suspicion or element of crime at this stage.

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