Domestic workers unprotected in fight vs COVID-19: HK study

Jan Yumul, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 17 2020 04:11 PM

People wearing protective masks walk past closed shops covered with advertisements for rental space at Mongkok, following the outbreak of the new coronavirus, in Hong Kong, China, March 13, 2020. Tyrone Siu, Reuters

HONG KONG - Thousands of foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong face the risk of being infected with the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) after a study found that many experienced insufficient protection from the virus and had to bear a heavier workload amid the lack of labor provisions covering the city's households.

In a survey jointly conducted by the Asian Migrants' Coordinating Body, Mission for Migrant Workers, and the Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants between March 8 and March 10, up to 14 percent of 1,127 domestic worker respondents reported that they do not receive masks or sanitizers from their employers.

The AMCB said there are around 43,000 to 55,000 migrant domestic workers currently not receiving enough protective materials from their employers. For every 10 workers who were given masks, only four of them were given more than one mask per day for work, while 2 were not given masks every day, while four were given only one mask per day.

The study also said that foreign domestic workers still experienced disparity in sharing of protection in the household as 1 out of every 4 (almost 25 percent)- even for those who were given masks- felt that they got less masks compared to other members of the household.

For those who weren't provided masks, a whopping 78 percent declared that other members of the household did get masks for themselves. A similar declaration was made for those who did not have access to alcohol or sanitizers at their employer's home. Some 74 percent said that members of the household have alcohol and sanitizers, leaving them out.

The workers also reported that their work load has increased, with 80 percent who reported more cleaning, 50 percent who reported more cooking, 30 percent who reported spending more time for child care, and 15 percent who reported running more errands. 

Some 40 percent of domestic workers said they did not go out during the past month due to COVID-19, with some saying they were not given their weekly rest day or got less than what they should get this past month. 

For those who were given their weekly rest day, 25 percent of those who did not go out still did some work inside the house on their supposed off. For those allowed to go out for their rest day, 25 percent were demanded by their employers to return home earlier than usual.

The Mission for Migrant Workers received cases where workers have been fired due to the loss of jobs of their employers while some have been told to resign if they insisted on taking their days off outside the household. Some workers also reported being asked to terminate their contract when they developed a slight fever.

AMCB Spokesperson Eman Villanueva said the Philippine travel ban "created a lot of chaos" as it affected many Filipino migrant domestic workers and called the Hong Kong government's flexibility arrangement "too one-sided."

"The flexibility arrangement of the Hong Kong government, I could say was quite timely. But if you will look at it very carefully, it wasn't really meant to assist migrant workers. It was meant to assist employers. So, they are offering extensions of visa of those domestic workers who are supposed to go home so that their employers will not have to suffer days or weeks without a replacement domestic worker," said Villanueva.

"We're not saying that it's' bad, but it's too one-sided. The flexibility should be framed in assisting everyone," he added.

The groups said the current situation of workers amid COVID-19 further exposed and magnified the problems of domestic workers arising from the Hong Kong government's policies in terms of wages, working hours, accommodation, and other labor rights. 

It also urged the Hong Kong government for more transparency in the reporting of migrant domestic workers who are being quarantined and are infected with COVID-19.

The Philippine Consulate earlier reported that five Filipino domestic workers have tested positive for COVID-19. Three of these have been discharged. All cases had no outbound travel history while six Filipinos who remain "healthy and asymptomatic" are still in quarantine.

"Since the beginning, the government has no communication with us regarding this information relating to migrant domestic workers," said Johannie Tong, Community Relations Officer, Mission for Migrant Workers.

Tong said they have met with the Consulates and got some numbers, but "it was not updated and comprehensive."

"We already wrote an email to the Department of Health to inquire about the related information. We hope that the information can be more transparent and migrant domestic workers can easily access the information so they can assess their risks working here in Hong Kong," said Tong.

Meanwhile, in an email response to ABS-CBN News earlier in March, the Hong Kong Labor Department said it was committed to safeguarding the rights and protection of foreign domestic workers in the city and enjoys the same protection and entitlements under the Employment Ordinance as local workers.

"In view of the development of the novel coronavirus infection, the HKSAR government announced at a press conference
 on 28 January 2020 seven disease prevention and control measures, one of which is to reduce the flow and contacts of people in Hong Kong," said the spokesperson. 

On Jan. 30, the Labor Department issued an advisory encouraging 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 if they need to go out. At the same time, employers were reminded that they must not require foreign domestic workers to work on their rest day. 

They were also reminded that an employer who compels their worker to work on a rest day is in breach of the executive order barring this and is liable to prosecution and, upon conviction, to a maximum fine of $50,000.

"Where an employee has contracted a disease, his/her employer should grant him/her sick leave in accordance with the EO. An employer is prohibited from terminating the contract of employment of an employee on his/her paid sickness day under the EO. An employer who contravenes this provision commits an offense, and is liable to prosecution and, upon conviction, to a maximum fine of $100,000," the spokesperson said.

Migrant domestic workers are also encouraged to report their cases to the Labor Department if they feel they have been aggrieved or employment rights have been abused through the dedicated email account [email protected] and the online form on the FDH Portal for FDHs. 

"Follow-up actions will be taken promptly. If employment claims are involved, LD will provide free and voluntary conciliation service to assist FDHs and their employers to resolve their employment disputes. LD will also investigate promptly any complaints involving suspected offense cases under the EO. Prosecution would be taken out if there is sufficient evidence," said the spokesperson.

As of March 17, Hong Kong has reported a total 158 confirmed cases. There have been four deaths while 88 have been discharged from the hospital.