Foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong often struggle to tell their employers about a pregnancy, given the risk of contract termination. We chat with Catherine Gurtin from PathFinders about enabling a safe and nurturing start for their children of foreign domestic helpers.
Even before a baby is born, many new mums and dads in Hong Kong are busy planning and preparing to provide the very best for their child—whether that be researching early-childhood education or shopping for clothing and nursery items. And yet, many foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong are struggling to raise their children in a system that often feels unfair. Catherine Gurtin is the CEO for PathFinders, a Hong Kong NGO dedicated to empowering domestic helpers and fostering a nurturing environment for helpers’ vulnerable children.
PathFinders works to protect vulnerable and unsupported children in Hong Kong by starting with the mission that all children should have a fair start in life. The organisation started in 2007 when co-founders, Kylie Uebergang and Melissa Mowbray-d’Arbela, rescued four babies born to migrant women in Hong Kong. Since then, the NGO has grown and now provides child protection, counselling, shelter, education, and legal support, among other necessary services.
Catherine Gurtin, CEO of PathFinders
Can you tell us a bit about how you first started working for NGOs? What motivated you to pursue this path?
I initially worked for communications and public welfare at Pfizer, and I was part of their global public affairs team. During that time, I followed my husband to Singapore and that’s when I volunteered for Save The Children, as they had a regional office in Singapore. And this volunteering experience really ticked all the boxes in terms of what I value.
I’ve always had this curiosity and appetite to understand the “Why?” Why do things happen, particularly in situations I believe are inherently unfair. I am very fortunate to be born to my parents and to have received the best possible start in my life, but I didn’t choose them, it was by chance. I’ve always been driven by the sense of fairness and injustice.
I think I was destined to go into a field where I can create positive change and improve the lives of people who deserve better.
We rarely talk about the children of domestic helpers in Hong Kong, or how dire their situation can be. Can you tell us about PathFinder’s mission in helping marginalised children and their mothers feel protected and empowered?
First and foremost, the protection comes down to knowing that if you become pregnant as a foreign domestic helper, even if you have lost your job or overstayed your visa, you can still have access to healthcare to get the help you need. In terms of respect, we raise public awareness of these situations. We want to ensure these vulnerable children have a fair start, which starts with delivery at a hospital, a birth certificate, getting the required immunisations, and reducing the risk of abandonment and trafficking.
At PathFinders, we structure our crisis intervention services around the nurturing care framework—created by the WHO, UNICEF, and World Bank—reinforcing the five basic components of nurture and care.
Also, it is often overlooked that many migrant domestic workers here are working mums, too. And not enough people are looking into how this affects their children who are left behind. Migrant domestic helpers leave everything and come in search of a better future but, anecdotally, many of the women end up going home worse off and/or their children are dropping out of school. There’s a physiological and psychological impact from parents and children being separated. So we’re looking into what more we can do to support the mother and child over the distance.
What’s your proudest achievement since joining PathFinders?
I’ve got so many! I’m definitely proud of the team I work with—they’re all so inspiring, passionate, and driven and it’s such a joy to come in and work alongside them. I’m also proud of our ambassadors program where we scaled our outreach and education. We used to focus on intervening during a crisis but we’ve come a long way thanks to our ambassadors that aim to prevent such problems from happening in the first place.
The other thing that we do now, that we weren’t able to before, is to support and engage the employers. I find it unfathomable that a worker can get fired because of her pregnancy. But at the same time, it can be a challenging time for the employers so we equip them with information and advice to find more viable solutions. If we can support both the worker and the employer, and the worker can maintain job security, she doesn’t become immediately homeless.
We have a long way to go but I’d love to see a time when a worker who has a planned pregnancy has the confidence to tell her employers about it early on. That way the worker and employer can work out how the worker can have a safe pregnancy.
What do you find most difficult about your job?
Definitely some of the cases we handle and I’m amazed by the job our social workers are doing, by giving their all to help the workers. For example, we worked with a migrant domestic worker who had overstayed in Hong Kong for about 30 years; she came to us with a 29 and 28 year old daughter. They didn’t have birth certificates and never went to school. They were living illegally underground, and had been hiding and living in different places. The longer they had stayed, the more difficult it was for them to come forward. And then with our help, we got the daughters birth certificates and managed to get them home to their family. They finally had freedom after living in constant anxiety of being caught.
The other case that scarred me was when a lady turned up to our centre unexpectedly, she was seven months pregnant and high on meth. She was running away from her drug lord, pimp boyfriend, and had overstayed by two years. We couldn’t provide her shelter unless she surrendered for overstaying, which she was reluctant to do. We were able to take her to the hospital but, when we got there, the lady had preeclampsia and the baby was in distress. An emergency C-section was performed and the baby was hospitalised in intensive care. But soon after she recovered from the birth, the mother left the baby in the hospital and then the baby went into a critical condition. And since the mother didn’t sign any papers, the doctors could not operate on the child. And when the others called me and told me about this, I just sobbed and held my children tighter. The child is now taken care of after PathFinders got involved and is with Mother’s Choice.
You scratch the surface of this city and there’s just so much need.
A lot of people may be unaware that domestic helpers are under immense pressure when they tell their employers about their pregnancy. Just how bad is the situation and what can we, as the general public, do about it?
We actually don’t know just how bad the current situation is. While there are reports indicating the number of migrant domestic workers giving birth in hospitals, there are those who resign upon finding out they’re pregnant, and those who abort their pregnancy. For us, typically in a year, we’re handling about 400 cases.
And for the general public to help, it can be as simple as treating these helpers with respect and kindness as part of our community. Migrant domestic helpers are a critical part of Hong Kong. You probably know of someone who is an employer and the least we can do is to support and encourage them to treat their helpers as human beings with dignity.
Can you tell us about your book, #MyVoice Vol. 2 Stories of Transformation & Purpose by Women of Substance? How much of it was influenced by your life? What do you think the women featured in your book all have in common when it comes to overcoming adversity?
I contributed to one of the 20 chapters in that book, and I felt quite vulnerable so I was a bit worried when it got published! And at the same time, I wasn’t ashamed; I felt empowered for enduring what I did. My mother tried to commit suicide when I was 16, but we both learned so much from that experience. We all have ups and downs in our journey.
And all these women in my book, their stories are all so different but they all share the same level of willingness to share their story and same level of authenticity.
What future goals do you have for PathFinders?
So many! But I want us to remain committed and determined in our ambition of crisis prevention. I really look forward to the day when a pregnant domestic worker could communicate with her employer and they have the time and resources needed to keep the worker employed and grant her maternity leave.
Find out more about Pathfinders and what they do.