What is it about our government and domestic helpers? Quite the most disgraceful moment of the Covid-19 epidemic so far was the suggestion that it would be a good public health measure to cancel their days off. Now we have – in response to one case (ONE CASE!) an order that the entire overseas domestic helper population must get tested.

Predictably this meant, in many cases, that the helper must get a test on her day off. The resulting rush led to distressing scenes of women spending up to seven hours of their supposed holiday queuing in the open air.

Foreign domestic worker covid-19 test
Foreign domestic workers wait in line under the sun to get Covid-19 tests.

Clearly, this is partly a result of our government’s scorn for the interests of poor people. If it became necessary to test all property developers, or all senior civil servants, we can assume, I think, that more humane and convenient arrangements would have been made.

It is also of a piece with the blatant racial discrimination against overseas domestic workers, which results in them not qualifying for residence however long they stay here, in marked contrast to the treatment of overseas workers in more prestigious occupations.

These points have been made very eloquently by my fellow columnist Sharon Yam, so I shall not dwell on them at length here.

A subsequent story which bothered me concerned the reaction to this debacle from the chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission, Ricky Chu Man-kin. His first reaction was that the requirement was not a violation of the Disability Discrimination Ordinance because it was “reasonable”.

However, he conceded that a policy which landed heavily on one race might be against the Race Discrimination Ordinance. But requiring overseas domestic helpers to get tested did not target a race because it “targets an occupation, so it is not against the ordinance”.

Ricky Chu
Ricky Chu. Photo: Citizen News.

Come off it, Mr Chu. The policy would be targeting an occupation if it required all domestic helpers to get tested. There are, after all, local domestic helpers. I used to employ one myself.

The word “overseas” is the give-away. We know what it means in this context. It means the new requirement applies to a domestic helper if, and only if, she was imported from the Philippines or Indonesia. 

Clearly a policy which applies to two races can be just as objectionably racist as one which applies only to one race. 

This is disappointing. Generally we find that people who are appointed to head commissions quickly become enthusiastic – sometimes excessively enthusiastic – about the topic they are supposed to be working on. So the Privacy Commissioner becomes a privacy fanatic, the Tourism Commissioner becomes immoderately keen on tourism and so on. 

It would be nice to see a similar level of passionate commitment in the Equal Opportunities Commissioner.

The International Migrants Alliance Hong Kong & Macau
File photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

One recalls, rather worryingly, that American presidents have a habit of gelding government agencies they disapprove of by appointing as their heads people who do not agree with the objectives of the agency. So, President Trump’s Consumer Safety Commissioner was demonstrably uninterested in consumer safety, his head of the Environment Protection Agency was a vociferous supporter of polluting industries, and so on.

I have no idea why Mr Chu was selected for his present post. And indeed, even if the selectors thought he would be a soft touch for the government, such expectations are sometimes disappointed, as Henry II found with Thomas Becket. 

Mr Chu has been willing to talk the talk on discrimination, which is good. But it is also not enough. Upon discovering that he spent five years as the Secretary General of the Independent Police Complaints Council one has to wonder if he has perhaps had more practice at rejecting complaints than any man needs.

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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.