It hasn’t been an edifying few days for Hong Kong. After a domestic worker from the Philippines was found late last week to have contracted a more infectious strain of covid
locally, all 370,000 foreign women working in the territory’s homes were ordered to take coronavirus
tests, many queueing for hours over the weekend to do so. They faced the prospect of mandatory vaccinations, too—something not required of any other category of resident. Discrimination cannot be the basis of a good public health strategy.
The unequal treatment of housekeepers, mostly Filipinas and Indonesians, is not uncommon in Hong Kong. Little is done to improve the plight of those who keep the financial centre fed, washed and cared for. None are expected to ever settle in the city, and small indignities are rife. The city’s South Asian community, many of them long-term residents and even citizens, felt the collision of discrimination and pandemic measures earlier this year when targeted lockdowns began. These were accompanied by comments from authorities on the “social behaviours" of minorities, described as gathering, eating and drinking. This mistake is callously being repeated with the foreign domestic helpers. One official explained that women are considered high risk because, on their single weekly day off, they meet friends.
As a virus-containment strategy, it seems an odd priority. There’s nothing to suggest, whatever is happening in their home nations, that domestic workers already in Hong Kong have higher transmission risk than anyone else. They’re required to live with families and not in dormitories, and have far fewer opportunities to interact with others than, say, their employers. Prevention is sensible, but previous clusters of infections started by wealthy dancing matrons and expatriate gym-goers didn’t provoke similar mass testing by category. And while a case can be made for obligatory vaccinations, it’s hard to see why it would apply only to one group —indeed, complaints have now forced the government to announce it is reviewing the decision. Domestic workers have already suffered disproportionately through the pandemic, with employer-imposed restrictions and acute loneliness.
Hong Kong authorities have said the moves are not discriminatory, because they target an occupation. Fully vaccinated workers are exempt from testing. Yet much like Australia’s decision to ban citizens coming from India, threatening fines and jail—something Canberra didn’t do for returnees from Europe or the United States when cases surged there—the policy betrays deeper prejudice. Quarantine of arrivals in Australia might have obtained the same effect without the problematic undertones. In Hong Kong, tracing contacts while reaching out to encourage vaccination might have resulted in more lasting change among domestic workers and beyond, given the unimpressive overall pace of inoculation across the territory.
Some of this comes down to the sort of responses favoured by Hong Kong authorities. While it’s true that quarantine and testing have helped keep cases in the territory low, policies have been erratic and often harsh. The infected helper has prompted tens of thousands of tests, but also forced all residents of her roughly 400-unit apartment building into government quarantine for 21 days. An earlier, unrelated case of a recently arrived domestic worker found to be infected with the troublesome strain put a luxury block of flats into isolation camps for the same three weeks. It’s a least a missed opportunity to show the benefits of inoculation by allowing vaccinated families to isolate at home.
When it comes to foreign workers, it also adds up to bad economics. Yes, these women need Hong Kong and keep families afloat with the hundreds of millions of dollars they send back annually from the city. But officials would do well to remember Hong Kong’s own dependence on domestic workers, which is increasing as the population rapidly ages. The value of their labour added up to $12.6 billion in 2018, according to one estimate—3.6% of the overall economy. But consider that by 2038, Hong Kong may have roughly double the elderly population, while the number of those aged 75 will reach 1.4 million, according to estimates from government economists in 2019—not far off a fifth of the population.
Today, a silent workforce suffers insufficient food, rest and autonomy. A minimum wage of HK$4,630 for a month of six-day weeks, or just under $600, could easily be matched in Asia’s many other ageing economies, all in need of more young helping hands. Add ad hoc humiliations like this testing order, and they may become far more attractive.