HONG KONG - The Hong Kong Labor Department has appealed to employers of foreign domestic workers and employment agencies "to make necessary arrangements" to accommodate compulsory home quarantine for domestic workers travelling to Hong Kong.
This, as Hong Kong authorities are pulling out all the stops to contain a second wave of mostly imported infections that could possibly strain the city's healthcare system.
During a regular joint presser of the Department of Health and the Hospital Authority on March 19, Hong Kong reported 14 new COVID-19 cases, almost all of them are imported and with history of recent travels. As of March 19, there have been a total of 168 confirmed cases, 4 deaths while 92 have been discharged.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam earlier expanded Hong Kong's Red Outbound Travel Alert globally, except Mainland China, Macau, and Taiwan.
A compulsory quarantine had come into effect on midnight of March 19 subjecting arriving people, including Hong Kong residents, to home quarantine. However, since February 8, visitors and locals arriving from Mainland China have already been undergoing mandatory self-quarantine.
"Under the Regulation, the persons concerned will be quarantined (a) in a place assigned by an authorized officer; or (b) if an authorized officer considers it prudent and appropriate in the circumstances of the case — in a place nominated by the person when the quarantine order is made against the person," said the government advisory.
With reference to the Compulsory Quarantine of Certain Persons Arriving at Hong Kong Regulation (Cap. 599C) though, exemptions include those supplying goods or services required for the normal operation of Hong Kong or the daily needs of the people in Hong Kong, for governmental operation, for the protection of the safety or health of the people or the handling of public health emergency; or cases of exceptional circumstance that serves the public interest of Hong Kong.
"Contravening the quarantine requirement would be a criminal offense. Offenders are subject to a maximum fine of $25,000 and imprisonment for six months," said the statement.
In an email to the press shortly before midnight, the Labor Department said that while domestic workers are expected to stay at their employers' residence, and should an employer wish to arrange for them to stay out from their residence, the employer should make prior arrangement with the workers' employment agencies to accommodate the worker concerned.
"The employer is reminded to comply with his/her obligations under the Standard Employment Contract, including bearing the accommodation expenses and providing food allowance to the FDH (foreign domestic helper). An employer shall not compel his/her FDH to work outside of the employer's residence," said the Labor Department.
The temporary advisory could have a far-reaching impact, reviving discussions on Hong Kong's mandatory live-in arrangement for helpers, which became a law in April 2003, also the year of the SARS outbreak.
Coincidentally, Hong Kong heard an appeal on March 16 by Filipino Nancy Almorin Lubiano who first launched a judicial challenge against the live-in policy in 2017. She lost at the Court of First Instance then.
Migrant advocates and some domestic workers have been pushing to scrap the live-in rule over fears of unreported rampant abuse in the household. Prior to the live-in law, domestic workers had the option of living separately from their employers, and their working hours controlled, among others.
Judicial review aside, the news was welcomed by Consul General Raly Tejada who had earlier tasked the Philippine Overseas Labor Office in Hong Kong to engage agencies to accommodate arriving or returning workers before the announcement.
"Well it is good that the Hong Kong government has listened to our appeal to make sure our workers are not displaced by quarantine measures. There is now greater awareness to uphold the welfare of returning workers, especially the responsibility of employers to provide suitable accommodation," said Tejada in a text response to ABS-CBN News.
But even before the announcement of the arrangements, Mission for Migrant Workers' Manager Cynthia Abdon told ABS-CBN News they have already received a call from an employer asking where she should bring her worker for temporary quarantine while waiting for the results of her workers' test.
"The matters of concern, one is, of a place to stay during the quarantine period when migrant domestic workers are not allowed to live out," said Abdon.
"Already in normal circumstances, MDWs nadadaya sila...one day to apply for HKID Card, one day aasikasuhin ang loan arrangement, magpapa-medical pa! Lahat 'yun kakaltasin ng employer sa sweldo ng employee. i-aassert nila no work, no pay'. Tinatabunan 'yung validity ng employment visa na dapat ay upon arrival ng worker," she added.
(Already in normal circumstances, migrant domestic workers are being cheated... one day to apply for a Hong Kong identity card, one day to handle their loan arrangement, and even go for medical exam! All that, the employer deducts from the salary. They will assert 'no work, no pay.' It covers the validity of the employment visa, which is supposed to be upon the arrival of the worker).
The situation was different during the SARS outbreak in 2003 when no recommendations of such were made. While Hong Kong struggled, she said, it was able to contain and manage well. And having that experience, she says the spread of COVID-19 could "possibly be a more serious one."
While she acknowledged the general announcements the Hong Kong government frequently makes in keeping its citizens informed, Abdon said it is important that migrant workers are not overlooked in the process.
"Gaano mang ka-general, may special needs ang MDWs. "Kakaiba" sila ayon sa gobyerno ng Hong Kong. Eh 'di dapat pang nakakaibang-ibayo ang tulong sa kanila," Abdon told ABS-CBN News.
(No matter how general, migrant domestic workers have special needs. The Hong Kong government regards them as "different". All the more should the 'different' assistance be available to them.)
The MFMW manager also said it was important to know where the workers would be staying, should employers opt for them to stay out. She is worried workers might be demanded fees by the agencies if the agencies helped arrange accommodations.
Amid a growing global response to tightening border restrictions to curb the rapid and widespread chain of infections, migrant workers are often left out of the decision-making as part of a response plan and end up navigating through sometimes incoherent policies borne by exemptions, exclusions, and sometimes, a blanket response.
Among them is returning Hong Kong domestic worker G.Lingao (not her real name) who was caught off guard when the Philippine government suddenly announced it was putting Metro Manila under community quarantine beginning the weekend, only to later impose a lockdown on Luzon island, followed by a state of calamity, triggering a whirlwind of panic and confusion and the nightmares of not being able to fly out again.
G. Lingao said she was already staying at an agency in Quezon City when the news came through. There, she met several OFWs bound for Hong Kong, at least two first-time would-be domestic workers, and others who had a scheduled flight, but were asked to return home because of the new measures.
G said, several applicants boarding at the agency also did not wear a mask or have any protective gear, which was also a cause of worry. Many of them came from various provinces in Luzon, Iloilo in the Visayas, and Mindanao.
Fortunately, the HK OFW, aware of the necessary social distancing, was able to pack some masks for herself and share them with others who didn't. On March 19, G.Lingao was set to fly out of Manila. She would now be covered by the compulsory home quarantine when she enters Hong Kong.
For another domestic worker who postponed her return to Hong Kong, her country of origin would be the United Kingdom where her Hong Kong employers sent her last month over worries of rising COVID-19 cases at the time.
With the World Health Organization announcing the novel coronavirus as a pandemic and with the epicenter now shifting to Europe, her employers aren't taking any more chances.
"Hindi kami nakasakay kahapon sa Vietnam Airlines. Ayaw na nilang tanggapin mga foreigner sa kanila lalo na ('yung) galing UK. Kaya sa Friday na ulit flight namin sa British Airways na. For sure, maabutan na namin 'yung home quarantine na 14 days," M.P. told ABS-CBN News.
(We weren't able to board Vietnam Airlines yesterday. They didn't want to accept foreigners especially those coming from the United Kingdom. So we're flying on Friday now via British Airways. For sure, we'll be arriving to a mandatory home quarantine.)
At a press conference organized by the Asian Migrants' Coordinating Body on March 16, before the Philippine government enforced a Luzon-wide lockdown and President Rodrigo Duterte declared a state of calamity in the entire Philippines, spokesperson Eman Villanueva said the measures were more geared towards "addressing the so-called law and order" than towards addressing health concerns.
Villanueva criticized the move for causing more panic among community, "was not well thought of" and lacked clear guidelines.
"We want to see more testing of people instead of more soldiers just checking the temperature. You cannot check... it's not enough. It's not being scientific. The approach is not scientific, it is not comprehensive. There's not enough testing kits in the Philippines," said Villanueva.
"If we're worried in Hong Kong the government is not doing any mass testing, in the Philippines it's more serious because at the moment there is not sufficient testing kits yet that they can use for the whole community so we are very worried," he added.
Duterte rolled out a P27.1 billion package to combat the COVID-19 outbreak in support of the economy and with an aim to ensure that there is enough funding for the Department of Health, and to provide relief to businesses affected by the disease outbreak.
Among the important items in the fiscal support package is a P3.1-billion budget that will be used in support of health frontliners including the acquisition of more COVID-19 test kits; and a P2 billion-package that will serve as the initial budget of the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) to help workers who might lose income during the disease outbreak.
For a long-time OFW who just got back to Hong Kong from the Philippines, the lockdown experience was smooth.
The worker, who requested that her name be withheld, said the changes may have stirred a bit of panic and prompted her to arrive in Manila from Baguio City one day before her flight, which was originally scheduled on March 16 at 8:20 p.m. She said she and her sibling left Baguio via a private vehicle on March 15 at 2:00p.m. and arrived around midnight.
"Naabutan ng lockdown pero wala naman kaming nadaanan na checkpoint. Alam mo 'yon, nagpa-panic kami baka maraming checkpoints? Wala naman pala," she told ABS-CBN News.
(I got caught in the lockdown but we did not pass any checkpoint. You know that feeling when you're panicking because you might pass a lot of checkpoints? There was none.)
She said she tried to see if Cathay Pacific airlines would accommodate her for an earlier flight so she tried queueing for the 12:25pm flight on March 15 and was surprised to find that she was not required to pay any additional fee.
"Sa part na pagpasok ng tourists sa country, OK ang lockdown. Per province na lockdown OK basta sana may plano para sa mga ma-apektuhan lalo na 'yung mga hikahos," she said.
"Kasi mukhang from time to time may binabago sa mga guidelines, which is ok para naman sa ikakabuti ng lahat. I mean, lahat ay apektado. Need lang natin magtulungan at maki-cooperate. Matatapos din ito," she added.
(For imposing a lockdown against tourists entering the country, it's OK. A lockdown per province was ok just as long as there is a a concrete plan for those who don't have much. Because it looks like guidelines are being changed from time to time, which is OK because it is for the benefit of all. I mean, all are affected. We just need to help each other and cooperate. This too, shall pass.)
Meanwhile in China's other Special Administrative Region, Macau, COVID-19 statistics, in a population of about 700,000, have remained almost flat, with about 40 consecutive days of no new cases. The casino hub heaps praises on Chief Executive Ho Iat Seng's decisive leadership. It initially refused to shut down all borders, but rationed masks as one of the first steps, until it suspended schools and its lifeline, the casinos, for some two weeks.
On March 19, and as global cases increased, Macau announced it was shutting down its borders to all foreigners, and later broadened the rule to blue card holders or non-resident workers.
Macau Philippine Consul General Lilybeth Deapera confirmed with ABS-CBN News that Macau's 15th COVID-patient is Filipino. Initially, details were limited due to the privacy act.
Deapera said Macau's 15th case passed through Hong Kong from the Philippines.
Since March 15, Macau has had 4 new cases after reporting no new cases in over a month. Another Filipino under observation is a part-time cleaner whose employer is Macau's 11th confirmed case.
"We wanted to get more details, but unless they contact us then we have to rely on the news reports also," Deapera told ABS-CBN News.
"We know that P11's part-time cleaner is a Filipino and she is under investigation," Deapera added.