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Push employers to provide masks, workers urge HK gov’t

06 February 2020

By Vir B. Lumicao

Migrant leaders call for better health protection and an end to discrimination amid the contagion
Leaders of migrant workers groups are asking the Hong Kong government to require employers to provide their helpers with surgical masks, alcohol and other sanitizers to help stanch the spread of the Wuhan novel coronavirus in the city.

In a press conference held on Feb 5 by International Migrants Alliance Hong Kong and Macau chapter, the leaders called on Hong Kong to include helpers in the fight against the contagion by giving them masks, alcohol and antiseptics.

The migrant leaders also urged the government to withdraw its appeal to Hong Kong’s 350,000 foreign domestic helpers to stay at home on their rest day to contain the spread of the disease, calling the move discriminatory and a magnet for workers’ exploitation.
Eni Lestari, IMA chairperson, asked the Hong Kong government to make it mandatory for employers to provide masks, vitamins, alcohol and antiseptics to their helpers to arm them for the fight.

Her call was echoed by Johanie Tong, representing Mission for Migrants Workers, who urged the government to ensure masks for everyone in Hong Kong. The Mission spokeswoman said no one should be left behind in the fight against the contagion.

“The salary of the workers is very low and the price of masks is very expensive, so it’s not fair for them to buy their own masks. The government should make it mandatory for employers to provide their helpers masks,” Lestari said.


Prices of these items in Hong Kong have skyrocketed amid the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus that has already claimed nearly 500 lives around the world, and caused close to 25,000 people to fall ill, mostly in China. 

Lestari said IMA is trying to provide these protective items to workers but donations of the stuff they had collected from other migrant workers is not enough.

She said IMA has been appealing to the Macau community and other places for mask and sanitizer donations, but they themselves are relying on donations from people overseas.
Lestari said many people in Indonesia, the US and Canada want to give masks, vitamin C and antiseptics, but the problem is how to bring them to Hong Kong.

She suggested that governments, including Hong Kong, should open up their embassies and even airlines to receive donations and bring them here as one way to help the people.

Tong said the Hong Kong government must also assist migrant workers who experience difficulties in returning to the city due to cancellation of flights.

Likewise, she said the government should ensure the workers won’t be discriminated against, and isolated and excluded in the fight against the new virus.

Tong appealed for donations of masks, alcohol and other protective stuff for migrant workers through the Bethune House.

Lestari said the alliance has received complaints from workers about employers using the Hong Kong government’s appeal to let them perform house chores on their rest day or threatening them with termination if they insist on going out.

Lestari said the “stay home” policy is a “double burden” for helpers who have no rooms, as they have no rest and they are forced to work because they need to stay in the house the whole day.

The lucky ones with their own rooms can rest, but still do cooking and cleaning, she said.

She said if the workers without rooms say they have to go out because they have no room to stay in, the employers tell them “Don’t come back, I will terminate your contract.”
Villanueva says Labour's advice that  FDWs stay at home on their day off is discriminatory
Eman Villanueva, Unifil-Migrante HK secretary-general, estimated 30% to 40% of domestic workers were unable to take their day off due to the “stay home” advice issued by the Labour Department in late January.

He said he based his numbers on “informal complaints” by affected members of his 2,000-strong group who don’t want to file formal complaints for fear of losing their jobs.

Villanueva said the reality is that despite the government threatening sanctions against employers who force their helpers to work on their rest day, those are meaningless.

“Because of the power relations inside the household, (the threat is) meaningless; because of the absence of job security, it’s actually meaningless,” he said.  

Villanueva also said it was irresponsible for the Labour Department to suggest that the employer pay the worker in place of her rest day.

 “The only thing an employer can do is offer an alternative day to replace that Sunday but they cannot offer monetary compensation, that is prohibited by the law. So, I think it is very irresponsible of the Labour Department to make such an advisory,” he said.

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