It is nice to see that official ingenuity is spreading the load of opposing the Wuflu around the community. Last week the Labour Department suggested that employers of Hong Kong domestic workers should encourage the helper to stay in their employer’s home on their days off.

To add insult to injury this was described as “staying home”. The idea originated in the Labour Department but it was defended at a later press conference by our Chief Executive who, as you might expect from someone who needs help to get through an MTR turnstyle, doesn’t seem to have much idea of what life for domestic workers is like.

The ostensible purpose of the suggestion is to reduce “social interaction” by cutting out opportunities for people to get together.

There are some problems with this idea, though. Many domestic workers have no space of their own at their employer’s place. Many others have a space so small that in some countries you would be prosecuted if you kept a dog in it. Sometimes there is no window.

In short, for many of these ladies the space offered at “home” is not the sort of place in which you would wish to spend 16 leisure hours, even if the alternative was a prison cell.

Calling this “staying home” also betrays a fundamental fallacy. Telling a domestic worker to spend their day off at their employer’s place is not telling them to stay at home, it is telling them to stay at work.

File photo: Robert Godden.

Sitting on a sheet of cardboard in Central with a few friends on Sunday is as near to “home” as these ladies get.

There is also the question of what happens on the other six days of the week. Generally, a domestic worker is expected to do the food shopping for their employer. This entails a trip to the local wet market, which is why in Hong Kong wet markets (if you ask your chauffeur nicely, Carrie, he will tell you what a wet market is) many of the stallholders speak English.

So our government is, it appears, quite happy to have domestic workers running around the place on weekdays doing errands for their employers. It just wants them to, in effect, forgo their day off.

The Labour Department’s official announcement included the charming detail that asking your domestic worker to work on her day off was a criminal offence. They did not say how many people had been prosecuted for this offence in the past, so we are free to suspect that the figure is zero. It’s not as if there were hordes of officials dedicated to the work of protecting domestic workers from exploitation.

File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

I realise we all want the spread of the dreaded virus to be curtailed as much as possible. Domestic workers, along with the rest of the population, may and perhaps should be urged to avoid large gatherings and to consider before going out whether their journey is really necessary.

But this does not justify urging employers to imprison their employees on what is supposed to be a day of rest, even if you call it, as the Labour Department did in its press release, an “appeal to employers to explain the special circumstances in discussing rest day arrangements with their FDHs [Foreign Domestic Workers]”.

And whose side is the Labour Department supposed to be on? The workers? With friends like that, who needs enemies?

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Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.