Coronavirus: ‘live-in’ rule carries real risk for domestic workers sharing flats with quarantined employers, workers group says

Fiona Sun

Domestic workers required by the city’s “live-in” rule to stay in the same home as employers undergoing quarantine are urging the government to lift the regulation and provide clear guidelines for how they should protect themselves during the coronavirus epidemic.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor on Tuesday announced new travel restrictions requiring all arrivals from overseas to undergo a mandatory 14-day home quarantine and be subject to another two weeks of medical surveillance.

The announcement and a spike in confirmed cases overseas have led to a rise in the number of arrivals over the past few days, including domestic helpers and their employers.

Members of the Hong Kong Federation of Asian Domestic Workers Unions meet the press on March 22 to discuss fears surrounding living with employers undergoing quarantine during the Covid-19 epidemic. Photo: Fiona Sun

But the Hong Kong Federation of Asian Domestic Workers Unions (FADWU), which represents both local and foreign domestic helpers, slammed the government on Sunday over its lack of clear quarantine guidelines for both returning household staff and their employers.

FADWU secretary Shiella Estrada said while the measures ostensibly target their employers, the city’s nearly 400,000 domestic helpers – most from the Philippines and Indonesia – are bearing the consequences.

“We are frustrated,” she said. “We need more support, as we are also workers here.”

The coronavirus has killed more than 12,000 people and infected more than 290,000 worldwide to date. Hong Kong has recorded at least 317 cases, four of whom have died.

Secretary for Labour and Welfare Law Chi-kwong on Saturday said employers should provide quarantine locations either inside or outside their homes for returning domestic helpers, but would need permission from the Department of Health should they choose to get them a hotel room.

Living arrangements for domestic helpers whose employers are newly quarantined, however, were not mentioned.

Estrada, a 59-year-old Filipino domestic worker who has worked in Hong Kong more than 20 years, said she had received enquiries from other domestic helpers expressing concern about living in close quarters with their employers as they undergo home quarantine.

“How can we protect ourselves as domestic helpers when our employers are under home quarantine for 14 days?” she said. “I think it is time for the government to rethink the live-in policy. It is easy for us to get infected from outside sources.”

She also criticised the government for stopping short of detailing arrangements, including food and salary, during quarantine periods, and questioned the lack of compensation mechanisms for workers whose employers fail to provide adequate accommodation or attempt to illegally dismiss them.

‘Live-in’ rule for domestic workers leads to working on rest day, appeal argues

Phobsuk Gasing, chairwoman of FADWU and a 61-year-old domestic helper from Thailand, said many domestic helpers did not have proper accommodation and shared rooms with members of the households they worked for.

Since 2003, all foreign domestic workers have been required to live at their employers’ premises in Hong Kong. Estrada urged the government to lift the policy – which is currently being contested in court – not just during the pandemic, but permanently.

“We have had this issue for years. It makes us vulnerable not only to this pandemic, but also to other problems like sexual harassment and physical injuries,” Estrada said.

The federation also said many domestic workers now face dismissal either due to their employers’ financial struggles amid the crisis, or for ignoring demands they stay home during their one weekly day off.

The government announced on Saturday that foreign domestic helpers could apply to extend the limit of their stay in Hong Kong for up to a month for the purpose of finding a new employer if their existing contract was due to expire or was terminated on or before July 31, 2020.

But Estrada said there was no support for them to cover expenses during an extended stay without employment.

Gasing also said some employers were requiring their domestic helpers to do even more cleaning and disinfecting than normal during the pandemic, without providing protective gear for them.

She called on the government to amend the Occupational Safety and Health Ordinance to ensure employers are legally responsible for the safety and health of domestic workers, and establish an unemployment security system to protect those who lost their jobs during the public health crisis.

She also urged the government to make information more accessible to domestic helpers.

“We can better protect ourselves only if we know more about the outbreak,” she said.

In a reply to the Post on Sunday evening, the Labour Department did not address the issue of accommodation for workers whose bosses were undergoing quarantine, but pointed to a March 18 statement that reminded employers “to comply with their obligations under the Standard Employment Contract, including bearing the accommodation expenses and providing food allowance to domestic helpers.”

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