Our government is apparently helpless to stop millionaires holding parties in clubs and restaurants, where invited senior officials can gather in defiance of Covid restrictions. However, faced with three domestic helpers sharing the same piece of cardboard under a Central flyover, it swings into action.

The spate of fines for domestic helpers gathering in groups of more than two is a classical example of the government getting unnecessary stick because its members can’t keep their mouths shut.

Party host Witman Hung and Ellen Tsang, both election committee members at a party in January where Covid-19 was detected. Photo: Internet.

It seems there was some anxiety last week about the danger of domestic workers getting together on their day off. Leaflets had been distributed and warnings issued. Nobody would have noticed – except the helpers themselves, if Carrie Lam had not decided to say a few words on the matter at a press conference on the ensuing Friday. 

“We,” said Ms Lam, temporarily joining the police force, “shall not show mercy any more.” And on the ensuing Sunday, dozens of penalties were duly imposed against helpers. This is actually rather a small number, considering the thousands of domestic helpers who share a Sunday day off, and suggests that the warnings had been quite successful.

Six officers approach two domestic workers to remind them of the group gathering limit of two people. Photo: GovHK.

But “not showing mercy” is not a good look. If Ms Lam wants Hong Kong people to “feel her emotions” (her reason for not wearing a face mask at press cons) she might try to avoid the sort of phraseology that suggests we are listening to a hard-faced bureaucratic robot.

In the interests of accuracy, she should also avoid suggesting that in the interests of public health helpers should be encouraged to stay “at home.” The government’s official position is that no helper is at home in Hong Kong; their presence is permanently temporary, however long they stay, and consequently never leads to the right to stay, which effortlessly descends on bankers, academics and journalists after seven years.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam. File photo: GovHK.

What officials now seek is for the helpers to stay at their workplace.

The new “merciless” approach produced a predictable reaction. Some people set up a website to collect donations to defray the penalised helpers’ fines. This swiftly collected more than HK$100,000.

Enter the Secretary for Labour and Welfare, Law Chi-kwong, who opined on a radio programme that the people collecting money “may be suspected of abetting a crime”, and added that he had asked the Department of Justice to look into it.

The money collection people then took legal advice, and decided to scrub the whole idea. Contributors will get their money back.

Two years ago I would have said that this was quite astonishing. There is no law against you paying other people’s fines. I first discovered this many years ago when I was still a kid. My father, at the time a respectable and prosperous business person on excellent terms with the law and order industry, attended the local Magistrates Court to appear as a witness.

Law Chi-kwong. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP,

While he was waiting in the public gallery he saw a lady convicted, unjustly in his view, of a minor motoring offence. So he paid her fine. Nobody suggested that this was illegal, abetting the offence or anything of that kind.

For a current example we can consider Judge Frank Caprio, who has achieved fame (website here) because his cases are regularly televised. People send him money with the intention that he should use it to pay the fines of hard-up defendants, which he does, quite shamelessly, before the cameras.

Mr Law, though, followed the recent repression playbook in which the national security law looms over us all. “You may have good intentions, but we can’t rule out that you are maliciously obstructing our whole anti-epidemic effort.” Is that subversion? Who knows?

The point which will not have been lost on the money collectors, though, is that “abetting a crime” would imply the usual sort of procedure and trial. “Maliciously obstructing the government”, on the other hand, sounds like a year in jail on remand before you even meet your government-selected national security judge.

A police officer hands out a Covid-19 leaflet. Photo: GovHK

So Helping Helpers, the group concerned, marks a new record – an NGO appearing and disappearing in a matter of days. Clearly the flow of advice from the mainland is not confined to medical matters.

The underlying problem behind all this is that the fixed penalty has been set too high. Fixed penalty tickets are usually kept to small amounts because they are effectively an instant fine without any of the usual safeguards against error or abuse.

This is reflected in the penalties imposed for other offences subject to similar procedures: minor driving offences HK$250-HK$1,000; smoking HK$1,500; littering and kindred offences also HK$1,500. Earlier in the epidemic the penalty for gatherings was HK$2,000.

The sum of HK$5,000 is not only more than the statutory monthly wage fixed for domestic helpers. It is more than the standard social security payment for an able-bodied adult – or indeed for a disabled one unless he needs constant care. It is also much more than the “fruit money” on which people in my age group are expected to survive.

This is the sort of legislation you get when you have a legislature purged of opposition.

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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.