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An entirely avoidable domestic dispute

Hong Kong, 5 May 2021: There is a wall-mounted plaque in the BC&C office of which we are particularly proud. It was presented to us three years ago by the Mission For Migrant Workers in recognition of our assistance over the course of three-plus decades. Specifically, my long-time colleague Mel Boase has dedicated much of his life to this worthy cause. Mel may have retired from our firm 18 months ago, but he continues to serve as the Mission’s Treasurer, a role he has fulfilled since 1981. A few months ago, he kindly contributed a compelling article to our website highlighting the plight of migrant workers during the Covid-19 pandemic.

We have acted pro bono for the Mission in countless cases where domestic helpers – the majority hailing from the Philippines or Indonesia – and other migrant workers have been abused, exploited, cheated or mistreated by rogue agencies, shady middlemen and unscrupulous employers. Yet, in seeking to secure justice on their behalf, we often run into bureaucratic red tape and unbending officialdom. Quite simply, the laws of Hong Kong are stacked against these valuable but acutely vulnerable members of our society.

So we watched this week’s kerfuffle over mandatory Covid-19 testing and vaccinations for our helper community with more than passing interest. To recap: health officials uncovered a growing number of cases featuring mutated strains of the coronavirus; a minority of these involved domestic helpers; so the government ordered all 370,000 of them to undergo mandatory testing before 9 May; further, all helpers would need to be vaccinated before having their contracts renewed. Secretary for Labour and Welfare Dr Law Chi-kwong insisted this was not too much to ask. “They can choose not to work in Hong Kong, they are not Hong Kong residents,” he noted, helpfully.

Cue uproar. Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin Jr said the move “smacked of discrimination”. Consul General Raly Tejada argued – not unreasonably – that if domestic helpers here were forced to accept the new policy, it should apply to all non-resident foreign workers. Indonesia also appealed for fairer application of anti-pandemic measures. A domestic workers advocacy group lodged a formal complaint with the Equal Opportunities Commission. As the fallout continued, testing centres were overwhelmed, as you would expect. Thousands of helpers queued for hours last Sunday – their traditional day off – to comply with the new policy.

We’ve been here before, haven’t we? A government decision simply not thought through and then poorly communicated. Thankfully, we had an outbreak of commonsense yesterday when Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced the plan for mandatory vaccinations before contract renewals had been suspended pending review. Mr Tejada welcomed her “understanding and magnanimity” and stressed his office was encouraging all Philippine nationals here to take advantage of this city’s free and voluntary vaccination programme.

Ms Lam also revealed health officials were examining whether the 21-day mandatory quarantine for residents of any building with mutated strains of Covid-19 could be shortened if they were already fully inoculated. Finally! In the first three cases featuring mutated strains, the authorities sent more than 1,600 citizens into 21-day quarantine at Penny’s Bay, even those who had received their second vaccine dose and had since tested negative. Understandably, some have asked why they are not exempted.

Government health advisor Professor Ivan Hung has now suggested isolation for fully inoculated people can be reduced to seven days and perhaps done at home. Let us hope so. Otherwise, where is the incentive to get vaccinated? As with the Hong Kong-Singapore travel bubble, which I noted last week will not require Singapore residents coming here to be inoculated, our government is sending mixed messages on vaccination. The result? Our vaccination roll-out is limping along, just 573,000 citizens – only 7.6% of the population – have received their second jab. Once again, I appeal to everyone to do the right thing. If you haven’t already been vaccinated, you can book your appointment here. For the record, Hong Kong confirmed four new Covid-19 cases yesterday, taking the city’s cumulative total to 11,790, including 10 variant cases, with 210 related fatalities. We are told to expect six new infections today.

Aside from the Mission For Migrant Workers plaque, our office wall also features a framed photograph of yours truly with his teammates on a cricket tour to Malaysia in the late 1980s, playing against members of the Penang judiciary and bar. Despite limited talent, my love of cricket runs deep. I cherish my MCC membership and, when there isn’t a global pandemic, my annual trip to London for the Lord’s test is always a delight.

So it pleases me to report that a team of Filipino domestic workers are taking Hong Kong women’s cricket by storm. Founded in 2017, the SCC Divas have collected several trophies already, swatting aside more established teams in the process, and have provided seven players for the Philippines’ first national women’s cricket team. It is a heartwarming story for these challenging times – a group of ladies united in common purpose, demolishing stereotypes and revealing hidden talents. It also sends an affirmative message to Hong Kong’s well-intentioned but error-prone government: all our migrant workers are asking for, dear leaders, is a level playing field.

Stay safe and well, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

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