Amid criticisms of ‘discrimination,’ Labour Dept says appeal for FDH to stay at home during rest day just a ‘suggestion’

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OFWs at the HSBC building in Central on a Sunday.

The Labour Department said that their appeal to foreign domestic helpers (FDH) to stay at home during their rest day in light of the spread of the novel coronavirus (2019-nCov) in Hong Kong is just a “suggestion,” adding that  the domestic workers will ultimately get to decide if they want to go out or not.

“It is just a suggestion, it is not a law, it is not an ordinance,” a spokesman of the Labour Department told Hong Kong News on Jan.31 amid criticisms that such pronouncement unfairly turns foreign domestic workers into “scapegoats” and will give employers an excuse not to allow their domestic helpers to go out during their day off.

The Labour Department, in a press release issued on Jan.30, said that foreign domestic helpers should stay at home on their rest day “as far as possible” and also asked employers to “explain the special circumstances in discussing rest day arrangements with their FDHs.”

The government agency said they made the call after Chief Executive Carrie Lam declared the 2019-nCoV outbreak as an “emergency,” on Jan.25. The illness, marked by coughing, fever and shortness of breath has since infected at least 12 people in Hong Kong and over 7,000 others in 16 countries, with bulk of the cases reported in mainland China. At least 213 have died in mainland China as of Jan.31.

The Hong Kong Federation of Asian Domestic Workers Unions (FADWU) said that by asking foreign domestic workers to stay at home, however, they are in effect being tagged as a potential source of the virus, when what the Hong Kong government should be doing instead is providing them protective equipment and information.

“We think it’s totally unfair for asking migrant domestic workers (MDW) to stay at home with the disease outbreak. MDW is not the source of the problem, this proposal put migrants as the scapegoats. It also creates further tension between employers and workers,” Lau Ka-mei, organising secretary of the Hong Kong Federation of Asian Domestic Workers Unions said.

“I also mentioned that our migrants suffered from lack of protective equipment and information. Hong Kong government is not able to provide masks to the society, but just play the blame game on migrants,” she added.

Eman Villanueva,  chairperson of BAYAN Hong Kong & Macau, on the other hand, slammed the proposal as “blatantly discriminatory.”

“It is unjust to even suggest that FDWs sacrifice, or be denied of, their only rest day after six days of heavy work, in most cases working 12-16 hours of a day, based only on prejudice and malicious assumptions that FDWs are incapable of necessary hygienic and healthy lifestyle,” he said in a Facebook post on Jan.30.

“Unless ALL people in Hong Kong are instructed to do so, singling out FDWs to stay at home during their rest day while other members of the household can freely leave is meaningless and is blatantly discriminatory.”

The Labour Department, responding to these comments, said they only made such a suggestion because “we have a serious problem now,” but the foreign domestic helpers, composed of mostly of Filipinos and Indonesians, can still do what they want on their rest day.

“We cannot control them,” he said.