Hong Kong’s labour minister has asked local employers to be kind to their foreign domestic helpers amid the coronavirus outbreak, having warned negative news reports about their poor treatment could grow into a “diplomatic incident”.
Secretary for Labour and Welfare Law Chi-kwong said he had written to the Philippine consulate to reiterate the government’s commitment to safeguarding the rights of domestic helpers and providing them with any necessary help.
Law’s call for compassion in his official blog on Sunday followed media reports that some domestic helpers had been fired or kicked out of their employers’ homes after becoming infected with Covid-19.
Several NGOs in February warned that domestic helpers had been forced to sleep on the streets after testing positive, with a recent case involving a Filipino woman being told to self-isolate in her employer’s car while she waited for a negative result.
“These reports will of course trigger the concern and discontent of the compatriots of those foreign domestic helpers. And their countries will naturally need to fulfil the responsibility of safeguarding their nationals’ rights and speak up for them,” Law said.
The labour minister said the matter risked affecting “Hong Kong’s external affairs”.
“In order not to allow the issue to become a diplomatic incident, I wrote to the Philippine consul general in Hong Kong the other day to reiterate the government’s determination to protect the rights of foreign domestic helpers and we would spare no efforts to offer assistance to foreign domestic helpers,” he said.
Eman Villanueva, a spokesman for the Asian Migrants’ Coordinating Body, welcomed Law’s pledge and urged authorities to issue guidelines to employers on what to do if their domestic helpers contracted Covid-19.
“I am not saying that Hong Kong’s employers are in general bad guys. Many families simply were not well prepared for the recent Covid surge,” he said, adding that households’ first thoughts could have been to protect themselves.
“We have heard of cases that the employers do not allow helpers to enter their houses, and in some other cases, they simply sack the helpers. That is very inhumane.”
Under the Employment Ordinance, an employer is prohibited from terminating the contract of a worker during his or her paid sick leave, except in cases of summary dismissal due to serious misconduct.
Employers could also risk violating the Disability Discrimination Ordinance if they treat their domestic helpers less favourably as a result of becoming infected with or recovering from Covid-19.
About 330,000 domestic helpers currently work in Hong Kong, with most coming from the Philippines and Indonesia.
The government said on Saturday that it and the local community appreciated the significant contributions made by the domestic helpers to support families and the local economy.
“We must empathise with their not being able to visit their families back at home because of the ravaging epidemic,” it said in a statement, adding authorities were committed to protecting helpers’ employment rights to ensure the city remained an “attractive place” to work.