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Thursday, March 26, 2020, 23:39
We’re all in this together — including domestic helpers
By Andrew Mitchell
Thursday, March 26, 2020, 23:39 By Andrew Mitchell

One of the more depressing aspects of the COVID-19 outbreak has been the abuse suffered by ethnic Chinese around the world at the hands of people whose fear of the disease triggered within them a racist response. In my own country, the United Kingdom, for example, a woman was knocked unconscious in the city of Birmingham last month after reacting to a man who had allegedly told a Chinese friend of hers to “take your (expletive) coronavirus and take it back home”. Earlier this month, a university student from Singapore was also attacked, this time by two teenagers in London, one of whom reportedly told him, “We don’t want your coronavirus in our country.”

Thankfully, we’ve been spared such acts of mindless aggression here in Hong Kong. Nevertheless, concerns over the possible spread of COVID-19 have led to instances of discrimination, notably in a number of restaurants — more than 100 according to a survey by the Society for Community Organization — where customers from the Chinese mainland have effectively been banned despite the fact that, for over a month until the most recent batch of infections, the vast majority of new cases here were the result of community transmission.

It’s not only mainland residents, though, who have found themselves discriminated against. Many foreign domestic helpers have also suffered prejudicial treatment at the hands of their employers, with dozens reportedly losing their jobs for “misdemeanors” such as going out on their statutory rest day, even for church or a medical appointment.

The arbitrary dismissal of domestic helpers is also unethical. After all, most of them have made significant sacrifices to come to work here — sacrifices that were made in the expectation of securing stable work

Dismissals such as these may not actually be illegal. Under the terms of the standard employment contract, an employer is entitled to terminate the contract by simply giving one month’s notice or one month’s pay in lieu of notice. However, the dismissals are certainly unreasonable, as domestic helpers are, almost without exception, required to go out and do the shopping during the week. They’re also required to “live in”, so it’s essential for their overall well-being that they be allowed to get away from the workplace on rest days.

The arbitrary dismissal of domestic helpers is also unethical. After all, most of them have made significant sacrifices to come to work here — sacrifices that were made in the expectation of securing stable work. So, by terminating the employment contract without good reason, an employer is effectively breaking the understanding that if the helper carries out all the duties required of her to the requisite standard, she will have a steady job for at least two years.

Dismissing domestic helpers due to misplaced fears over the spread of COVID-19 has adverse consequences as well. Firstly, it sets a bad example to our younger generation, who see their parents acting on a whim to dispense of the services of a valuable member of the household. What will they be learning from such an example about valuing human relationships? Secondly, it damages Hong Kong’s international reputation. And this is something that could hurt us in the long run, as a combination of factors — the growing economies of the Philippines and Indonesia, the difficulties associated with expanding the current pool of helpers and the possible opening-up of additional labor markets in the region to overseas domestic workers — means that we may well be faced with an ongoing shortage of domestic helpers in the not-too-distant future.

For all these reasons, it’s important that the government considers making foreign domestic helpers entitled to some of the relief measures included in its HK$120 billion (US$15.5 billion) war chest to tackle the fallout from the COVID-19 outbreak. It could, for example, extend the provision of face masks for residents of elderly homes. Alternatively, it could make domestic helpers eligible for the HK$1,000 monthly subsidy available to specified government subcontractors, so that they can buy masks and sanitizers themselves.

Whatever measures the government decides to take, though, it’s important that we all bear in mind the invaluable contributions that foreign domestic helpers make to Hong Kong’s economy by enabling many young parents to remain in the workplace. If we do this, we’ll understand that it’s also in the employers’ interest not only for their helpers to go out on their rest days but also to be protected, just like the rest of us, from the virus that causes COVID-19. At the time of writing, some five domestic helpers had tested positive for the coronavirus, and all of them were almost certainly infected at their place of work.

As I said in my previous article for this newspaper, one of the key lessons that need to be learned from the COVID-19 outbreak is that we’re all in this together. COVID-19, as we all know only too well now, does not discriminate, so it’s essential that none of us discriminates either. Because if we want to fight the coronavirus effectively, we need to acknowledge that we’re all in the fight together. And that includes domestic helpers too.

The author is an educator, commentator and director of a company providing English-language services in Hong Kong.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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