Migrant Workers speak to Equal Opportunities Commission: The plight of migrant domestic workers during the COVID-19 pandemic

17 April 2020

Dear Mr. Chu,

The plight of migrant domestic workers during the COVID-19 pandemic

We are writing to express our grave concerns for the erosion of employment rights of migrant domestic workers (MDWs) in Hong Kong during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the lack of information, support and advice given to these workers by public bodies, including the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC).

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, there has been more discrimination faced by domestic workers. The media reported a case of immediate dismissal of a Filipino migrant domestic worker who arrived in Hong Kong with the rejection of accommodation arrangement by her employer for her quarantine. We have received as well cases of disability discrimination with the reason of COVID-19. The cases are mainly immediate dismissals due to worries of COVID-19. Some are unreasonable work and hygiene demand imposed on the domestic workers, e.g. an Indonesian domestic worker is ordered to clean toilets 15 times a day. Many are rejected to go out or to have day-offs by employers with the reason that the workers will be infected with COVID-19 if they go out on their day-offs.

While we are educating our fellow workers to understand their legal right under the Discrimination Ordinances and assisting them in filing complaints to the EOC, we find that there is a general ignorance by the public on the Discrimination Ordinances. Statements by the government have indirectly reinforced discrimination as they are often one-sided – instructing the MDWs to stay at home on their day-offs but not their employers. It also issues statements on migrant domestic workers who are to be quarantined but not on the employers who are required to be quarantined. And in all cases, no government department mentions the legal rights of domestic workers under the Discrimination Ordinances. Several racist comments are recorded in social media platforms and messaging groups as well.

At the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Government provided no information in minority languages, making it extremely difficult for MDWs to get timely information and to know how best to protect themselves as well as others.  Although the Government has since developed a Hong Kong Government COVID-19 webpage (coronavirus.gov.hk) with information in 11 languages, the information in ethnic minority languages is totally inadequate:

  • A small amount of basic information on COVID-19 was added only after around 23 Mar 2020.  Previously there was only general information on infectious diseases.
  • There is no specific information for migrant domestic workers to help them in their unique circumstances.  For example, asking migrant domestic workers to stay at home even on their rest days is not fair and discriminatory.  The cutesy pictures in government pamphlets of people putting their feet up or using their laptops at home are far removed from the reality of MDWs’ lives.  MDWs live and work in the same place, and many work in small apartments without their own bedrooms.  After working six days with no legal limits on working hours, MDWs are entitled to take their rest day away from their workplace if they wish to do so.  When they stay in, they are with their employers and not their own relative or friends.  They may not have much space to do anything, and some cannot truly rest because their employers will still ask them to carry out domestic work, and it is hard for them to refuse.

We recall that at the start of the SARS epidemic in 2003, the EOC set up a Quick-Response Team at to deal with issues and cases related to SARS.  The EOC also liaised with government departments such as the Labour Department in issuing guidelines on employment matters.  The COVID-19 is far more serious in its reach and impact, but the EOC has not set up any similar special advisory team to help vulnerable workers.  In fact, since the outbreak, the EOC has not publicised the plight of MDWs or initiate any social dialogues on the rights and obligations of employers and employees in connection with infectious diseases.  Even the Facebook page EMBRACE CAMPAIGN operated by EOC makes no mention of the discrimination against MDWs in this pandemic.

We are very disappointed that to date, the EOC has remained silent on the discrimination cases that have been raised in press conferences held by MDWs’ groups, such as the termination of MDWs after they refused their employers’ requests to stay at home on their rest days.  There seems to be a misconception in Hong Kong that because COVID-19 is an infectious disease, employers of MDWs are justified in taking any actions against MDWs if they are worried about MDWs contracting the virus, even if this means abusing the employment rights of MDWs and terminating their employment.  The EOC’s silence compared with its statements and opinions on discrimination against other groups relating to COVID-19 gives the impression that the employers’ discrimination against MDWs is not unlawful, but we know this to be untrue.

We understand that under the Disability Discrimination Ordinance (DDO), it may not be unlawful to discriminate against a person on the ground of an infectious disease that is specified under the Prevention and Control of Disease Ordinance (Cap 599) and any communicable disease specified by the Director of Health.  However, we are also aware that any discriminatory action taken must be reasonably necessary to protect public health, otherwise, the discriminatory action could still result in unlawful discrimination.

To date, the Commission has not issued any public information to explain to employers and employees on what would be reasonably necessary measures under the current pandemic, and how this applies to the specific circumstances of MDWs.  Even though the Commission’s Code of Practice on Employment under the DDO provides practical guidance on the law relating to infectious diseases, the Commission has not brought this to the public’s attention. The Commission also has not produced any special information in different minority languages to explain to MDWs their rights and protections under anti-discrimination laws in the current pandemic.

MDWs have little bargaining powers against their employers, and they either have to accept unreasonable work conditions or risk termination.  The Commission should be proactive and not wait until MDWs lodge complaints, because by then they might have already lost their jobs.

We demand the EOC the following:

  1. Set up a task force group to proactively study the situation faced by migrant domestic workers under COVID-19 and impose measures to tackle discrimination;
  2. Liaise with different government departments, especially the Labour Department and the Centre for Health Promotion in issuing proper guidelines, proper public education, information and statement with mindful attention to discrimination issue.
  3. Monitor discriminatory actions and comments by the public, and issue public statements or warning accordingly.
  4. Develop guidelines for employers of domestic workers to ensure non-discrimination and respect of rights of domestic workers.

We would like to have a meeting/teleconference with you on a Sunday to discuss the situation and what we can join hands together to fight against discrimination. We have produced as well public and workers education materials to promote collaboration of the employers and the domestic workers to combat COVID-19 infection, and the understanding of workers’ rights as well. (See https://bit.ly/dwcovid19)

Since discrimination is getting worse, we look forward to hearing from you soon. Domestic workers are at the forefront in the battle against COVID-19 along with many workers. They are ensuring the wellbeing and hygiene of Hong Kong families. The public offers no special support to domestic workers but just pointing their fingers against us as if we are an easier carrier of the coronavirus is simply a collective act of discrimination against us. We hope the EOC can do something regarding this.

 

Yours sincerely,

 

Phobsuk Gasing
Chairperson
Hong Kong Federation of Asian Domestic Workers Unions (FADWU)
 

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