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NGO helps migrant moms mount legal fight

14 April 2016

By Vir B. Lumicao

Indonesians comprised the majority, or 68%, of migrant mothers and their babies who sought help in 2015 from PathFinders. However, the number of Filipinas who consulted the NGO rose to about 30%, slightly more than in the previous year..
This was according to Jenny McAlpine, project manager of Pathfinders' Access to Justice Programme. Citing preliminary figures, McAlpine told The SUN that the two nationalities dominated the NGO’s estimated 800 clients last year, up 29% from 621 in 2014.
The Access to Justice program, a relatively new service of the NGO, makes mothers and their children aware of their legal rights in Hong Kong. The project's launch in September 2014 brought to six the number of services that PathFinders offers to distressed migrant mothers and their babies.
“We have founded Access to Justice program to help mothers and their children achieve their rights in Hong Kong,” McAlpine said in an interview at the PathFinders offices in Tai Kok Tsui on Dec 15.
“There is a great legal framework in Hong Kong, but it gets difficult sometimes for our clients to get access to that,” said McAlpine, who had been a magistrate in Britain for 17 years before coming to Hong Kong to offer her services to the organization.
She said the whole idea was to open the eyes of migrant working mothers to some realities in the SAR that could impact the care of their children
The work of the five pro bono lawyers in Access to Justice focuses on legal issues that involve child protection, adoption, discrimination, employment, maternity immigration and identity, paternity and criminal law
McAlpine said she joined PathFinders in May last year but did not get the program going until September. “Since then, we have handled over 60 cases. At the moment, we have about 20 live cases – cases that are actually active,” she said.
The mothers got pregnant mostly by their boyfriends -- not necessarily local Chinese, but men of other nationalities who the women met in Hong Kong -- expatriates, asylum seekers who hold recognizance papers, and fellow domestic workers.
Most of the women are afraid to take the children to their home countries for fear of reprisal from their husbands or from the stigma arising from their illicit affairs.
“There are different clients who come in. There are those who come to us still employed and are pregnant, and want to know how to manage that with their employers,” said McAlpine. Sometimes PathFinders gets involved in negotiating with the employers, explaining to them their obligations and workers’ rights.
Pregnancy is a problem for migrant domestic workers as many Hong Kong Chinese employers are reportedly reluctant to give their maid paid maternity leave as provided for in the Labor Law.
Another problem is where the nursing mother stays, as Hong Kong’s live-in rule for domestic workers makes it unlawful for them to live outside the homes of their employers, who mostly don’t want to share their roof with a helper’s baby
As a result, many of the babies live with their fathers in Hong Kong, about 9% are put up for adoption, and a few others are taken home by their mothers, McAlpine said.
If the pregnant mothers are terminated illegally, “we can make claims with the Labour Department but also we can make claims in the District Court for sex discrimination and all forms of discrimination,” McAlpine said.
At the beginning of 2015, PathFinders filed in court its first sex discrimination claim on behalf of a domestic worker and is due for mention in March 2016. A second claim was aborted when both parties settled; four other claims are in progress, she said.
“Other matters are making claims of paternity and maintenance for children. A lot of the fathers are local men with Hong Kong ID,” McAlpine said. It would be good for the child if the father could be proved so the child could get Hong Kong support,” McAlpine said
She said making paternity or maintenance claims is difficult not just with the migrants fathers. “The Hong Kong Chinese or expatriate fathers can be equally cold and won’t provide” for the children, McAlpine said.
Child protection is one service the Access to Justice offers, as McAlpine says there are instances where children are subjected to abuse, such as being abandoned or treated badly by their mothers, “and that’s when we step in.
Asked about the number of such children, she said she could recall three who were born to domestic workers who had lost their jobs and become undocumented.
She said when these mothers approached PathFinders, the NGO insisted they went to Immigration first before coming to them for help.
Clients learn about PathFinders and its services from friends, community newspapers, social media and community events which the NGO organizes or participates in actively.
For instance, on Dec 13, PathFinders organized a community event called “Migrants’ Health Day” in Yuen Long that was attended by mostly Indonesians and South Asians. PathFinders chief executive Kay McArdle said the event attracted about 1,000 migrant workers who watched the cultural program and visited the 10 booths that offered free services ranging from acupuncture to HIV/Aids test to job placement.
The NGO has taken part in so many such events that at least one female helper came looking for PathFinders among the “Care for Caregivers” booths during the 20thanniversary of The SUN on Chater Garden on Dec 20, but it was not there.
McAlpine recalled that in December, her team helped a maid allegedly raped by her employer’s husband claim maintenance for her baby. She is back home with her child
In another case, a helper sent to work in the house of her employer's daughter was allegedly raped by the woman’s boyfriend. When she got pregnant she told the police but they ignored the case. McAlpine said she was helping her file a claim against the boss.
In many cases, abused helpers simply left Hong Kong because they didn’t have the resources to mount a legal battle against their assailants, McAlpime said. But with the establishment of Justice Without Borders in Hong Kong, people can make claims even when they have already gone home through lawyers in their home countries, she said
Since arriving in May 2014, McAlpine has been to prisons and hospitals and seen the bad side of Hong Kong. “Sometimes when you tell people about what’s happening here, it shocks them too much…it’s a real shock to me how they treat people.”
She said PathFinders has helped around 3,000 cases since its founding in late 2007.
“When they come to us, we can provide shelter, we can provide food, we can make sure they go to immigration, and they can get birth certificates for the children, everything. We provide a healthcare program. And then we can offer counseling and education and we prepare them to make some time for their lives, whether that is to continue working in Hong Kong or returning home. Or, if they stay on in Hong Kong, we can help them get a visa,” McAlpine said.
PathFinders aptly said in its 2014 annual report issued earlier this year: “We are the voice of the babies and children we serve.”

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