Coronavirus in Hong Kong: Severe Consequences for Migrant Domestic Workers
Hong Kong, 22.02.2020
Shiella Estrada from the Progressive Labor Union Of Domestic Workers (PLU), Hong Kong, has received many calls from domestic workers seeking help or advice. The reported cases show that workers’ rights are violated. Some are deprived of rest and put at high risk of infection, culminating in the termination of work contracts, injured hands and enforced quarantine. Stigmatization and racial prejudices seem to play a role as well. The outbreak of the virus and the economic downturn worsens the already precarious situation of migrant domestic workers and other groups of low socio-economic status.
Sacrificing health and rights
In the household domestic workers are now confronted with higher hygiene expectations. Some of the requests by employers go beyond adequate measures, burden the workers and their health and violate their rights. As the main caretaker in a working family, a domestic worker is responsible for stocking the house with daily supplies, maintaining the general hygiene of a household and cooking. In the mass panic surrounding the scarcity of certain commodities, rumours circulated daily of where they might be available. Hence, some employers dispatched their domestic workers to different districts braving large crowds in the hope of buying items such as surgical masks and toilet paper. Shiella Estrada explains that some employers are simply not mindful of the risks that their workers must bear. They send them to the wet market every day for fresh products rather than asking them to buy food for several days at once.
Surgical masks are as scarce as they are expensive. Domestic workers cannot afford them, but they need them to accomplish tasks such as shopping for the household. By right, the employers have a responsibility to ensure the safety of everyone in the household. In practice, however, some employers provide a meagre supply of masks for their workers, requesting them to use them multiple times. In certain cases they do not provide masks at all. The PLU had previously pressed the Philippines Embassy to organize a coordinated distribution of masks, but the number of masks made available was far from sufficient.
Shiella Estrada reported the case of a domestic worker having to wipe comprehensively every surface in a house once every hour without being allowed to wear gloves in the process. The reason? “I don't want gloves in my house.” Consequently, the hands of the domestic worker are swollen, cracked and bleeding, drastically increasing the possibility of infection by open wounds.
The Price Of Vacations
Typically clandestine and ignored in the city, the community of domestic workers became a flashpoint of controversy overnight when the first case of infection appeared among them on the 18th of February. The subject of discussion among employers across the city was how to prevent their domestic workers from contact with those bearing the virus on their holidays. The Hygiene Department stated that the first bearer of the virus was an employer and the transmission of the virus believably took place within the household. However the discourse went on unreflectively to cast suspicion upon the workers and the activities that they engaged in on their days off. Migrant domestic workers were attributed the role as a high risk group lacking the most rudimentary knowledge in epidemic prevention. A host on a dominant television broadcaster took it upon himself to instruct employers on how they can use money to compensate their workers for revoked holidays[i], and a spokesperson of an employers' organization noted their collective fear of “allowing” their workers to leave the house on their day off. [ii] In January the Labour Department led the way in generating this sense of apprehension, insinuating that domestic workers put neighbourhoods in jeopardy by gathering in public places.[iii] As a result, domestic workers feel pressure to stay home instead of enjoying their day off with their friends in the open. Estrada stresses that the working hours of domestic workers are already very long and arduous. If even the day off is spent in the employer's home, then the domestic worker is deprived of the rest that she needs, leading to increased risk of transmission. She already received a plea for help by a domestic worker who left the house for five hours on her day off. Upon returning home, she discovered that her employer had packed all her things and she was expected to leave immediately. The employer argued that she was 'not satisfied with her performance at work' to justify the termination of her contract. Another example involved an employer who enforced the quarantine of her domestic worker in her own room for several days. In this period, she was only provided with instant noodles, biscuits and water.
Many of the demands and taken measures veer so far from reason and fairness that they contravene the original intention to 'protect one's health'. Shiella Estrada notes that following the outbreak of the coronavirus, the customary convivial spots that domestic workers frequent on their days off - Victoria Park for example - are now becoming sparser. She suspects that many domestic workers are remaining within the districts in which they work, keeping to the small parks. Meanwhile the PLU meetings are now conducted by teleconference.
With regards to concerns whether domestic migrant workers are sufficiently informed about how to protect themselves from the virus, she points out that the union has worked hard at organizing and disseminating information in various languages, and that workers themselves share related information among themselves through their own peer networks. In addition, the Hygiene Department now provides updates in Tagalog and Bahasa Indonesia. Shiella Estrada proposes that concerned parties who fear that migrant domestic workers lack knowledge should seek advice from active institutions and organizations. However if fear leads to the discrimination of the whole group of migrant domestic workers and the violation of their rights it is simply racial discrimination.
Author: Denise Wong
//Denise Wong: interested in walking with others on the rough path to the future. She is a member of Tak Cheong Lane Vegetarian Co-operative, Printhow (woodblock printing collective) and Same Same Different Association, all based in Hong Kong.//