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Full medical care for FDWs sought by Phl and Indo

15 December 2019

Officials from Indonesia, Hong Kong and the Philippines discuss policies for migrant workers.

\By Daisy CL Mandap

The top diplomats of the Philippines and Indonesia have launched a rare joint bid to seek full medical coverage for their nationals who come to Hong Kong as migrant workers, including those whose employment contracts are prematurely terminated.

Philippine Consul General Raly Tejada and his Indonesian counterpart Ricky Suhendar met with Labour Party legislator Fernando Cheung at the Legislative Council on Dec. 4 to pursue this agenda, and were assured of his full support.

Cheung also told the diplomats his initial talks with Hong Kong’s Secretary for Labor Law Chi-kwong on their request yielded positive results.

“Basically he said there will be no objection on the part of the government,” said Cheung. “He is positive about this, not neutral.”

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Legislators across the board also support the idea of providing health coverage for all foreign domestic workers, he said.

“When we (legislators) discussed the topic..last April…all members across the political spectrum agreed to the concept that workers from other countries who come to HK for domestic work should have some sort of medical coverage…and for the employers to take out the health insurance, the cost is minimal,” he said.

Cheung said the issue is personal to him, as his family has relied on foreign domestic workers for help, especially in looking after a disabled member, for years. One has been with them for 10 years. “I still believe that the better we treat our workers the better we treat ourselves,” he said

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Congen Tejada thanked him for his support and said his “heart was full” on hearing the legislator’s efforts to advance the cause of migrant workers.

Extending medical care has wide implications for about 220,000 Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong who, like all their peers, are bound by contracts that may be terminated at will by their employers.

Once released from their contracts, they are routinely turned away from public hospitals as they are no longer deemed “entitled” to free medical treatment.

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This was what happened in the controversial case of Filipina Baby Jane Allas, a cancer patient who found herself unable to continue her medical treatment after being sacked by her Pakistani employer in February this year.

Private donors stepped in to help after her case was picked up by international media, and Hong Kong was forced to look closely into the issue of lack of medical care for those who fall through the cracks of its highly regarded public health care system.

Congen Suhendra said the issue was also a big concern for Indonesia which has 174,000 nationals working as domestic helpers in Hong Kong.

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“We support your effort to continue finding a solution to this problem,” Suhendra told the legislator.

But Cheung warned that there were technicalities involved, such as the need to come up with an insurance plan that will allow the worker to get medical care even after she falls into the “gap” of not being on employment visa, such as when she is terminated or is processing a new work contract.

Currently, most insurance policies do not provide for medical care except for minimal payment for outpatient consultations. They also follow the job – not the person covered – so that when she is replaced, the coverage is transferred to the new worker hired in her place.

Cheung also said employers should likewise be consulted and assured that the wider insurance coverage for their worker also works to their advantage.

But, as he says, “it is also to the employer’s benefit that the worker is kept in a healthy condition. Workers’ health is essential to the employer, we don’t want them to get sick.”

Cheung later told The SUN he again met with Secretary Law, who reassured him of his support. “He is in support of the idea but is not sure if there’s such an insurance product available,” said Cheung. He is also worried about the possible opposition from the employers.”

Taking the initiative further, Cheung said he also spoke with legislator Chan Kin Por, who represents the insurance industry. Chan reportedly agreed to talk to his constituents and get back to him.

As for being treated in public hospitals, he said those in a life and death situation are never turned away as a matter of public policy.

But routine medical check-ups could be a problem as that is when a patient’s HKID card is checked to see if he or she is qualified for the heavily subsidized medical treatment at the hospital.

He said those who get admitted and are later on slapped with a hefty medical bill should not get overly worried about not being able to pay the charge.

“The bill is sent to the person and if it does not get paid it becomes a bad debt,” he said. “But not everyone understands this, especially honest persons who don’t want to make it appear that they owe the government, and that it could affect their future employment.”

Congen Tejada thanked him for this disclosure, as it could be a big help to Filipino workers who might end up being in the “gap” but still need to seek medical treatment.

Accompanying the consuls general were their labor chiefs.

Antonio Villafuerte, office-in-charge of the Philippine Overseas Labor Office, brought up as a side issue the need to provide a separate visa category for caregivers, in line with a pledge given by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam when she took office two years ago.

Indonesian Labor Attache Erga Grenaldi explained that their workers are required to take out a life insurance when they leave the country, but are also dependent on their employers for health protection once they start working in Hong Kong. But on arriving here, the employers are also required to pay for the worker’s medical check-up before she assumes work.

Cheung assured the diplomats they would be informed on how the insurers and the employers respond, and what would be the next step forward.
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