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COVID-19 and its impact on OFWs

10 March 2020

By Cynthia Tellez

The novel coronavirus that started in Wuhan, China in December last year has spread fast, and contaminated many people across the globe. The number of affected persons within China alone has now gone up to more than 60,000 with more than 1,000 dead.

There are several advisories from the Centre for Health Protection of Hong Kong’s Health Department in their website about the deadly virus, now known officially as Covid-19. The Immigration and Labour Departments have also published relevant advisories on how to handle the contagion, thus, I will not deal with that in this column.

It is the reaction of several countries implementing stricter immigration controls, banning the entry of people coming from China, Hong Kong and Macau that is our concern. So far, the country that has imposed the most stringent travel requirements for Hong Kong is the Philippines. From Feb. 2, foreigners from any country were barred from entering the Philippines from any of these places. Lately, even Taiwan was added to the list. Only Philippine passport holders can enter but they will be subjected to 14 days’ self-quarantine.


But what is more worrying was the complete travel ban imposed by the Philippine government on its constituents. This means that no Filipinos touring, working or residing overseas will be allowed to leave the country if their destination is China, Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan. This is puzzling because not one of these destinations has a policy preventing the entry of Filipinos, or in particular, overseas contract workers coming from sending countries like the Philippines.

As a result, tens of thousands of Filipino overseas workers who are on vacation or emergency leave, or are about to leave the Philippines for the first time, have been left stranded in several countries across the country.

We strongly suggest that those affected by the Philippine travel ban should communicate with their employers immediately and ask them for compassion and understanding so they will not terminate your contracts with them, this situation being not your fault – or theirs.

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 Some employers may not terminate the contract but may impose unpaid leave. You should not agree to this because, again, it is not your fault. Encourage your employer to check the insurance policy they were required to take for you because it might just allow them to collect compensation to cover your salary. Some of these insurance policies allow an employer to temporarily hire domestic worker locally (anyone with permanent residency in Hong Kong) for up to three months, and the insurance company will shoulder a substantial portion of the temporary worker’s monthly salary.

 There are those who are encouraged to resign: DO NOT RESIGN! This is but a temporary situation.

 Those who are asked to take a vacation should also think twice because it will be difficult for you to book a flight home, plus you will not be able to return to Hong Kong while the travel ban is in force. You might just end up worrying about your job if the ban lasts far longer than expected.

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 Recently, the HK Labour Department also gave an unsolicited advice to migrant workers, that they should avoid going out on their rest day to prevent being contaminated by the deadly virus. Do not heed the call if you feel you must go out because that is your right. Stay home only because you want to, but remember that you are not supposed to work during this day.

The Mission has received reports that some employers have taken this advice to mean that they can prevent their domestic workers from taking a day off. This is not right. Let us remember that this is just an advisory – an advice- by the Labour Department. It has not changed the Labour Ordinance provision that allows you to have a rest day once every week, or during a statutory holiday.

As a matter of law, there should be a definite rest day for all domestic workers: one day in a week, a continuous 24-hour day-off. This cannot be taken back by the employer without the consent of the domestic worker. And even if there is, there should be a clear agreement, and the unspent rest day must be replaced by another day within 30 days.

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If your employer offers to pay you for that unspent rest day, you should not accept it because that is unfortunately illegal. The rest day cannot be replaced with monetary pay as it is the worker’s right to rest and replenish spent energy.

In some instances, when out of fear of termination of contract, a worker accedes to employer’s instruction not to go out during a rest day. Document this. Keep a diary and write the circumstances in detail.

To many domestic workers, the problem is beyond what is legal or not. Many have problems with their accommodation. They have no room of their own. They sleep in the living room or anywhere in the flat without privacy. It is difficult for them to rest even during rest days. How much more in this particular time when almost all members of the family are around?  They cannot just sit in the living room the whole day and watch their employer do everything “because it is their rest day”.

In this situation, it is understandable that domestic workers will find it strenuous to stay in the house twith their employers. The awkward feeling of seeing the employer does the chores while the domestic worker is “just sitting” is so uncomfortable that it creates more stress than real rest. The natural thing to do is to assist. But before you know it, you are already working even without being asked by the employer.

It is entirely different if you have your own room where you can really rest - an ideal situation in times like this.

In the event that your employer terminates your contract because you refused to work on your rest day, they will be liable to breach of the Employment Ordinance and you can file for compensation with the Labour Department.

For those who are stranded in the Philippines due to the travel ban, it is indeed horrifying to imagine yourself unemployed with the rest of your family depending on you. The Php10,000 in financial aid that you could get from the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration, while appreciated, will not be enough to pay for your lost job and the bills that you need to pay, especially if you remain unemployed for months.

There are many more unfortunate situations created by the current condition, complaints that were not covered in this article. Should you wish to consult for more information and suggestions, do not hesitate to contact the Mission for Migrant Workers at this number – 2522-8264 or call Ester at 9711 1673 or Cynthia at 9740 9406 or Edwina at 9488 9044.

This is the monthly column from the Mission for Migrant Workers, an institution that has been serving the needs of migrant workers in Hong Kong for over 31 years. The Mission, headed by its general manager, Cynthia Tellez, assists migrant workers who are in distress, and  focuses its efforts on crisis intervention and prevention through migrant empowerment. Mission has its offices at St John’s Cathedral on Garden Road, Central, and may be reached through tel. 2522 8264.
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