Live-in domestic workers in Hong Kong have been left homeless after they were diagnosed with Covid-19 and their employers fired them or refused their return to the residence, support groups have said.
Many of the workers, who are mostly women from Indonesia and the Philippines, were also left without insurance to cover their medical bills.
Hong Kong is in the midst of its worst ever outbreak with the Omicron variant infecting thousands of people a day, overwhelming hospitals and government isolation facilities.
The problem is exacerbated by strict policies of mandatory isolation for patients and close contacts, with tens of thousands of people unable to find accommodation.
They have instead been told to isolate at home, but in the cases of dozen of domestic workers, their employers have refused to let them.
There are an estimated 390,000 domestic workers in Hong Kong, working six days a week, for a minimum HK$4630 (US$593) a month plus food and board. They are legally required to live with their employers and isolating anywhere else, other than government facilities or hospital, is illegal.
Maria*, a domestic worker from the Philippines, tested positive on a rapid antigen test. She said her employer gave her three options – pay for her own stay in a quarantine hotel for two weeks, go to hospital and “tell them I am very sick”, or have her contract terminated.
“I went to hospital in the morning but there were so many patients I finished at 6 o’clock in the evening,” she said. “My employer told me I can’t come back to their house, because I was dangerous and I was afraid that I would transfer the virus.”
Stranded at midnight, Maria’s friends reached out to an NGO, HELP For Domestic Workers, who found her a place in a shelter. Other workers have been forced to sleep in parks, at overpasses, or outside hospitals.
HELP said they were assisting more than 100 workers left homeless, including at least a dozen who were fired or ordered not to return to the home.
On Tuesday the Philippines consul to the city accused the Hong Kong residents who were firing and evicting their workers of illegal and “immoral” acts.
“If it can be proven that they were asked to leave because of their sickness, this can be considered an illegal dismissal under the employment ordinance in Hong Kong,” said Raly Tejada, adding the mission was helping more than 60 people.
“We are proactively engaging also the employers to explain to them that terminating their employees in these difficult times especially when they are positive is not only illegal. It is immoral.”
Manisha Wijesinghe, the executive director of HELP, said many employers were scared they and their families could get sick or be sent to quarantine facilities as close contacts of the ill worker.
“I don’t think there is a malicious intent there. It’s really the fear that’s driving everybody at the moment,” she said.
But leaving the women homeless, some for up to three or four nights in Hong Kong’s winter, was “untenable”.
Wijesinghe called on Hong Kong residents to provide support for their domestic workers who fell ill.
“We understand that it is a scary time and everyone is worried for their own safety, for their children and family’s safety, but the thing is the domestic worker is also part of the family. They are the ones that take care of you on a day to day basis,” she said.
According to HELP and other NGOs most cases of stranded workers are people who had tested positive before a flight home and were denied boarding.
Mai* said she slept in a tent after she tested positive before her flight to the Philippines, and was refused reentry to the boarding house where she’d been staying.
“They gave me a tent and a thick blanket so I wouldn’t feel cold. I slept the whole night outside the boarding house,” she said. Mai has since moved to a shelter, but the NGOs say the facilities, which usually house people in between jobs or waiting for flights home, are ill equipped to also isolate Covid patients.
The government has said it is coordinating with consulates to provide assistance to workers who lost jobs, and looking for alternative accommodation sites.
Maria said she hopes to return to her job because she has three children to support, but will look for new employers.
“I don’t know if I get sick again if it will happen again. If they do this again to me, I think I shouldn’t go back to them,” she said