The 2003 SARS epidemic killed nearly 300 people in Hong Kong and left an indelible mark on migrant workers like Eman Villanueva. The resulting economic downturn led to an 11 per cent cut in domestic workers’ minimum wage, whilst many lost their jobs as their employers fell victim to widespread unemployment.

Memories of those dark days are still vivid, but Villanueva – spokesperson for the Asian Migrants’ Coordinating Body – said foreign domestic workers are facing greater problems this year as the coronavirus outbreak rocks the city. The outbreak has caused one death locally and more than 560 others worldwide.

The International Migrants Alliance Hong Kong & Macau slammed the Labour Department’s suggestion to foreign domestic workers to stay home on their rest day “unfair, unjust and discriminatory”. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Last Thursday, the Labour Department caused a major backlash among the migrant worker community, as advocacy group the International Migrants Alliance Hong Kong & Macau slammed the department’s call for domestic workers to spend their rest day at home as “unfair and discriminatory”.

The department said that urging workers to stay home was to “safeguard their personal health” and “reduce the risk of the spread of the novel coronavirus in the community”. Chief Executive Carrie Lam also backed the department’s call in the following day: “That was part of a strategy to reduce as much as possible social contacts or what we call social distancing… because if [foreign domestic workers] all go out and they enjoy their day as we have seen from time to time on Sundays in various parts of Hong Kong, they are no doubt in a crowd.”

Villanueva disagreed with Lam’s explanation at a press event on Tuesday and said the government should have made a general call for all citizens to minimise social contact, rather than singling out domestic workers: “When you target a specific group of people, it becomes a very different thing. It sends a wrong signal that if you allow them to go out and gather, it is a danger to society.”

The government did not make a similar appeal back in 2003 during the SARS outbreak. Villanueva, who has been in Hong Kong for two decades, said he and other migrant workers had the freedom to decide whether they wanted to go out, and were mindful of personal hygiene by wearing face masks and avoiding crowded areas.

Conflict with employers

Following the Labour Department’s call last week, the alliance said they received reports that some domestic workers were not allowed to leave home by their employers on Sunday – their usual day off.

File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

While the alliance did not have official figures, they estimated that more than 50 per cent of workers in the city stayed home last Sunday, based on observations of deserted streets in Central and Victoria Park – two popular spots where domestic workers to gather.

Some workers who had been denied a rest day were threatened with contract termination, while others chose not to challenge their employers in fear of losing their jobs, the alliance added.

Villanueva said conflicts with employers over rest day arrangements also existed during the SARS epidemic, but he said the government announcement complicated the issue.

Migrant worker activist Eman Villanueva. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

“There [was] tension between migrant workers and their employers, but not as much as now. I think the advisory really made it more complicated, as some employers would misinterpret it as a direct order.”

Joan Tsui, the convener of the Support Group for HK Employers With Foreign Domestic Workers, told HKFP that her organisation had received inquiries from employers for suggestions on rest day arrangement, but so far most of the cases she had heard were settled peacefully.

“I heard that many employers hoped their workers would stay home, and the workers agreed too, so it didn’t seem to be an issue,” Tsui said.

In a reply to HKFP’s enquires on Tuesday, the Labour Department said their advice was made to safeguard the personal health of the city’s 400,000 foreign domestic helpers (FDHs): “The Government has been appealing to the public to take necessary health precautions and to refrain from gathering so as to minimise the risk of infection,” they said in an emailed statement. “The Philippine and Indonesian Consulates-General have similarly appealed to their nationals to take necessary health precautions and avoid large crowds or gatherings.”

Shortage of protective supplies

Villanueva said he was surprised by the surge in the price of protective supplies such as face masks and hand sanitiser in Hong Kong. As some employers did not provide for their workers, domestic workers had to purchase protection materials with their own money, which had become a financial burden given that their minimum wage per month is only HK$4,630.

Representatives from the International Migrants Alliance Hong Kong & Macau at a press conference on February 5. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

“It wasn’t really a problem during SARS, I would say we had sufficient supplies. Who would know we would line up for hours for masks and sanitisers? It’s just crazy now,” Villanueva said.

Although the Indonesian Consulate announced on Facebook that its citizens could each get six face masks every day, the consulate said they only had 25,000 in stock.

Villanueva hoped the Hong Kong government could intervene and impose price controls, or implement measures to ensure there is adequate supply of face masks, alcohol and hand sanitisers to foreign domestic workers: “Among my group of friends, we are always discussing why the government is not intervening. This is, you know, an extraordinary situation, and the government needs to take some extraordinary measures.”

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Kelly Ho

Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.