HK gov’t gets flak for urging domestic workers to ‘stay at home’ amid nCoV worries

Jan Yumul, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jan 31 2020 11:21 PM

Domestic workers gather on Chater Road on Sundays. Jan Yumul, ABS-CBN News

The Hong Kong Labor Department on Thursday issued an appeal urging foreign domestic workers to stay at home during their rest days.

It also reminded employers not to require their helpers to work on their days off amid the threat of the 2019 novel coronavirus, which has brought the total number of confirmed cases in Hong Kong to 12.

"The government appeals to FDHs (foreign domestic helpers) to stay home for rest on their rest day as far as possible, and to stay away from crowds on public transport or at public places. At the same time, employers must not require FDHs to work on their rest day," the advisory read.

Domestic workers who need to go out are also advised to wear a surgical mask and avoid staying in crowded places.

"If a FDH or his/her employer has visited the Mainland recently, he/she should wear a surgical mask and stay home for 14 days upon return to Hong Kong as far as possible," the advisory added.

But the move was criticized by the Mission for Migrant Workers, which said it was unacceptable for a government department that is supposed to safeguard the rights of migrant workers, as it suggests giving a wrong signal and "something what is tantamount to violating their rights, this time, to days off or holidays".

"Especially that these are people who do not have a choice where to spend their free days because their abode is also their workplace, how can the LD ensure that they are not made to work — how will they monitor?" said Cynthia Abdon, general manager of the MFMW, in a text message to ABS-CBN News.

"Wrong signal (#2) talaga: bakit hindi sila palalabasin? Sa halip na mag-suggest magtiyak ang employer na may supply ng mask, ng sanitizer, implication nito, sila (migrants) ang nagkakalat ng virus. Ano ang basis nila rito? Sila (employers) ba hindi rin lalabas?" Abdon said.

(Wrong signal No. 2. Why should they not be allowed to go out, instead of suggesting that employers also supply masks, sanitizers? This implies that migrant workers could be spreading the virus? What is their basis here? Won't employers, too, not go out?)


'UNFAIR, UNJUST'

Eman Villanueva, spokesperson for the Asian Migrants' Coordinating Body, also hit the LD saying it was "irresponsible, unfair, unjust and discriminatory", as it may be misinterpreted by some employers as a blanket policy and may result to widespread violation of foreign domestic workers; rights to weekly rest day and statutory holidays."

"It unfairly and maliciously insinuates that FDWs’ communities are particularly prone to spreading the virus. In fact, the only incident involving an FDW is a Filipino who had a direct contact with two nCoV carriers who happen to be her employer’s relatives. This incident happened inside their household, not outside," Villanueva said.

"It is unjust to even suggest that FDWs sacrifice, or be denied of, their only rest day after six days of heavy work, in most cases working 12-16 hours of a day, based only on prejudice and malicious assumptions that FDWs are incapable of necessary hygienic and healthy lifestyle," he added.
 
The AMCB spokesperson said that instead of "promoting steps that will violate our rights", they call on the LD and the HKSAR government to ensure that FDWs are accorded the same level of protection with the rest of the population.

The labor department also appealed to employers to explain special circumstances in discussing rest day arrangements with their domestic workers and reminded that employers who compel them to work on a rest day is in breach of the Employment Ordinance and is liable to be prosecuted and, upon conviction, to a maximum fine of $50,000.

APPEAL WAS MEANT 'TO PROTECT'

In a separate statement released Thursday, January 30, the labor department also appealed to employers to provide necessary personal protective equipment.

"If an employee is required or ordered by a health officer to be put under medical surveillance or quarantine, he will be issued a medical certificate with the statement of 'under medical surveillance'. The employer would need to grant that employee sick leave in accordance with the requirements under the Employment Ordinance or the relevant employment contract," it added.

In a text message response to ABS-CBN News, Consul General Raly Tejada said the consulate is aware of the Hong Kong government's request for domestic workers to remain at home during the rest day.

"We understand the objective of the request, but maintain that the final decision rests with the domestic worker. In the event that they choose to stay at home then the employer must respect their day off and not give them tasks," the Consul General said.

Meanwhile, the Philippine Overseas Labor Office in Hong Kong urged all employers to bring back their Filipino domestic workers to Hong Kong and that suspension and administrative sanctions shall be imposed to agencies under the accredited Foreign Recruitment Agencies (FRAs) in the city that fail to assist the workers in case the need arises.

In a news report, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said the Labor Department's appeal was meant to "protect" the workers.

"I suppose that advise was merely given to protect our foreign domestic helpers by suggesting that they should stay at home," Lam said in a report posted on HongKongNews.com.hk.

"That was part of the strategy to reduce as much as possible social contact or what we call 'social distancing.'"