Lam: Appeal to FDH to stay at home during rest day part of ‘social distancing,’ not meant to discriminate

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Screenshot of Lam at her presscon on Jan.31, 2020

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam defended the appeal made by the Labour Department for foreign domestic helpers (FDH) to stay at home during their rest day, saying it’s part of a strategy for “social distancing” or minimizing social contact to prevent the spread of novel coronavirus acute respiratory disease (2019-nCoV-ARD) in the city, where cases of infection have risen to 12.

In a presscon on Jan.31, Lam said the Labour Department made the said announcement with the objective to protect public health.

While she admitted that she has not yet seen the statement from the Labour Department, she believed that it was made to reduce the risk of 2019-nCoV ARD infection, as the said virus can be transmitted between humans.

“I suppose that advice was merely given to protect our foreign domestic helpers by suggesting that they should stay at home, that was part of a strategy to reduce as much as possible social contact or what we call “social distancing,” Lam said.

She also raised the shortage of face masks as a factor, as foreign domestic helpers – which are made up mostly of Filipinos and Indonesians – will need to wear them in order to protect themselves when they go out, and it may be difficult to get them given the current low supply.

“That also takes into account the current limited supply of face masks, because if they all go out and they enjoy the day as we have seen from time to time on Sundays in various parts of Hong Kong, they are in no doubt in a crowd, which means that they will have to wear masks and protect themselves,” she said.

She said the advice from the Labour Department also echoes the government’s move to cancel events.

The Labour Department earlier asked foreign domestic helpers to stay at home during 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 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.