Dozens of domestic workers have been fired after falling ill while more than four in five helpers experienced increased discrimination during the Covid-19 pandemic, unions said on Sunday.
However, members of the Hong Kong Federation of Asian Domestic Workers Unions said up to 80 per cent of the 427 helpers it surveyed did not know they could lodge complaints with the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), while those who had approached the federation for help were often scared of hurting their future job prospects if they filed complaints.
“This survey found out most migrant workers did not know they could file cases about discrimination,” said Shiella Estrada, secretary of the federation, which represents both local and foreign domestic workers.
“This is why we are calling on the EOC to reach out to more migrant workers to let them know about programmes and protections for migrant workers.”
Hong Kong has nearly 400,000 domestic workers – mostly from the Philippines and Indonesia. Unions had previously criticised the government for not providing enough protection to those quarantined with employers during the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected more than 1,100 people in Hong Kong and nearly 10 million worldwide.
Now, union representatives are sounding the alarm again as workers face having their contracts unlawfully terminated by employers who assume they may have caught the coronavirus.
“If the government cannot protect those already here, how will other workers feel safe enough to come in the future?” asked Rowena Borja, chairwoman of the Overseas Domestic Workers Union.
Under the Disability Discrimination Ordinance, it is unlawful for employers to terminate contracts with their employees on the grounds of any disability, including infectious diseases. But unions said they had received dozens of complaints from workers who had been fired after falling ill.
Among them was Indonesian Susanti, who arrived in Hong Kong in late February but fell ill with stomach problems soon after starting work in March, said Lilik of the Union of United Domestic Workers. Susanti’s employer took her to hospital, where she was tested for the coronavirus.
She tested negative the next day but Susanti’s employer insisted she be quarantined for two weeks with no pay, then terminated her contract three days later. Lilik said the employer brought Susanti back to the employment agency, where she loudly insulted her and called her a pig.
Susanti flew back to Indonesia on March 25, with only HK$600 in cash.
A Nepalese man who had worked for 12 years in Hong Kong was fired after going to hospital for a routine check-up, as he had high blood pressure. His employer had originally asked him to delay his appointment, but he went anyway as he felt unwell, said Chuni Thapa, the federation’s vice-chairwoman.
Meanwhile, domestic workers surveyed by the federation also said they were not being paid while they underwent compulsory quarantine after arriving in Hong Kong. Their workload had also increased to more than 15 hours a day, while some did not receive protective gear such as masks, hand sanitisers and gloves.
Others, such as those from Thailand struggled to understand quarantine guidelines at the airport, which were only in Chinese and English.
“They did not know how to fill out the forms or give the saliva samples, and ended up staying in the airport from 10pm to 4am,” said Parichat Jaroennon of the Thai Migrant Workers Union.
While the federation had helped some of the workers file complaints and was encouraging others to do so as well, Estrada said many were hesitant or would end up settling with their employers. “We mainly file unlawful termination complaints as employers terminate contracts during the Covid-19 pandemic only on the assumption a worker is infected,” she said.
But the EOC will also stop accepting complaints via email on July 27 this year, a move which Estrada said would only make it more difficult for migrant workers to file cases, as the online forms for filing complaints were too complicated.
The union called on the EOC to set up a task force to proactively tackle discrimination, as well as to work with other government bodies including the Centre for Health Protection to put out proper guidelines, monitor discriminatory actions and issue public statements. It also said proper quarantine guidelines in different languages for ethnic minorities should be issued.
Hong Kong Employers of Domestic Helpers Association chairwoman Betty Yung Ma Shan-yee refuted the unions’ claims, saying bosses were very aware it was unlawful to terminate contracts if the workers were sick.
“They know the situation would be very disadvantageous to them if the workers were to take the case to the Labour Tribunal,” she said.
It was more likely employers had fired their workers because they could no longer afford hired help, Yung said, as Hong Kong’s unemployment rate rose after the anti-government protests last year and the pandemic hit the economy.
She also said it was up to employers whether they paid their helpers while in quarantine, adding it was a problem which not only affected domestic workers but all Hong Kong employees, many of whom had been asked to take unpaid leave during the pandemic.
But both Yung and the union representatives agreed the government needed to keep up coronavirus testing at the airport, as an estimated 10,000 Filipino migrants, including domestic workers, were expected to return after the Philippines authorities resumed processing travel applications.
“The government absolutely has the responsibility to keep up testing of people travelling in from anywhere to guarantee the safety of local residents,” Yung said.
The Post has contacted the EOC for comment.
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