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HK Labour hit after urging migrant workers to stay home on their rest day

31 January 2020

By The SUN

HK Labour tells migrant workers to stay home to prevent spread of coronavirus

In an unprecedented move, Hong Kong’s Labour Department has appealed to foreign domestic helpers to stay home on their rest day as a precaution to the spread of the Wuhan novel coronavirus in the community.

“The government appeals to FDHs 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,” said the statement.

The advisory was immediately criticized by Cynthia Tellez, manager of the Mission for Migrant Workers, who called it illegal and discriminatory.

Another community leader, Eman Villanueva of Bayan Hong Kong and Macau, was more scathing, describing the Labour Department call as “irresponsible, unfair, unjust and discriminatory.”

Tejada says it should be worker's  choice
Consul General Raly Tejada on the other hand, said the Consulate understood the objective of the request, but maintained 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,” said Congen Tejada in a message to The SUN.

In two separate advisories, the Consulate advised Filipinos to avoid large gatherings and organizations to postpone public events to help reduce the risk of infection, but did not tell them to remain indoors at all times.

At the same time, it reminded employers not to bring their helpers to the mainland, in reaction to many appeals for help from Filipina domestic workers who are being forced to cross the border by their employers, despite the contagion,

Tellez calls move 'racist'
Tellez said she was surprised by the Labour Department’s statement, as it amounted to the government agency violating its own prohibition against not allowing a foreign domestic worker to take a day off.

“Kalokohan yan because it sends the wrong signal that puwede nang hindi palabasin ang isang migrant worker sa kanyang day-off,” Tellez said.

“At saka, paano naman nating malalaman kung hindi nga pinapatrabaho ang worker kung nasa loob siya ng bahay?”

She said Labour can’t even suggest that the worker be paid for staying put because that again will be in violation of its own laws.

But more importantly, Tellez said the advisory affirmed the racist notion that FDWs cause the spread of illnesses in Hong Kong, when they are the ones who are actually at risk as they do not get to choose who they should live with.
She said this was shown by the case of the Filipina who was put under quarantine on Jan 24 after her employer’s parents who were visiting from Wuhan, tested positive for the coronavirus.

“Maling patakaran yan kasi ang Labour na dapat na nagpoprotekta sa mga migrant worker ay siya pang naglalapit sa kanila sa kapahamakan,” said Tellez.
Villanueva says  it's malicious and unfair to suggest
FDWs are likely to spread the virus

Villanueva agreed that employers could take the advisory to mean that they can deprive FDWs of their weekly rest day and statutory holidays.

He was also angered by the suggestion that the novel coronavirus (nCoV) contagion could be controlled if migrant workers stayed at home even on their rest day.

“It unfairly and maliciously insinuate 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,” said Villanueva.

He added that singling out FDWs and asking them “to stay at home during their rest day while other members of the household can freely leave is meaningless and is blatantly discriminatory.”

He said that instead of taking steps that violate migrant workers rights, the Hong Kong government must ensure that FDWs are give the same level of protection as everybody else in the city.

“Remind employers to provide their domestic workers with free protective materials such as face masks, vitamin C, alcohol-based sanitizing gel or spray. Ensure that their FDWs get sufficient rest and nutritious food so they wont get sick. Ensure that advisories and public information regarding 2019-nCoV are made available in different languages for the benefit of everyone including ethnic minority communities,” he said.

This was the first time that the Labour Department had made this unusual call. Even at the height of Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) which killed 299 people in Hong Kong 17 years ago, officials did not see it fit to suggest that FDWs should stay at home on their day off.

In addition to the call to stay at home, a Labour spokesman said everyone in Hong Kong should refrain from gathering so as to minimize the risk of infection.

He noted the same call was made by the consulates of the Philippines and Indonesia.

“If it is necessary for FDHs to go out, they are advised to wear a surgical mask and to avoid staying in crowded places. If an 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 spokesman continued.

An emergency alert was issued throughout the city on Jan 25, after the first two cases of coronavirus infections in Hong Kong were reported.

There are now 11 confirmed cases, while further tests and monitoring are being carried out on 600 or so suspected carriers.

In its advisory, Labour reminded employers who compel their helpers to work on a rest day is in breach of the Employment Ordinance and is liable to prosecution and, upon conviction, to a maximum fine of $50,000.

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