Domestic workers in Central on Hong Kong Island, the majority of them from the Philippines. Photo: Asia Times

Officials from the Hong Kong and Philippine governments met on Tuesday afternoon in a bid to find a solution for domestic workers who have been barred from leaving the country due to a travel ban.

The meeting was called to figure out whether Filipino domestic workers with Hong Kong work permits could be exempted from the newly-launched travel ban to Hong Kong by the Philippine government.

On Sunday, the Philippine Consulate General of Hong Kong announced a “temporary ban on Filipinos from travel to China and its special administrative regions,” referring to Hong Kong and Macau, according to a statement on its Facebook page.

It also said “any person regardless of nationality, except Filipino citizens and holders of permanent resident visas issued by the Philippine government,” would be banned from entering the Philippines if they were directly coming from China, Hong Kong and Macau or had visited the three places over the past 14 days. Filipinos who had recently visited the three places would be quarantined for 14 days.

It also said its people were not allowed to visit the three places, while the number of flights between the Philippines and the three destinations should be reduced.

The Philippine government’s decision came after a 44-year-old Wuhan man, who was infected with the virus, died in a hospital in Manila on Sunday, making him the first to die of the disease outside China. A Chinese woman, 38, who was with the man on a trip to the Philippines, was also infected but was recovering.

Over the past two days, officials from the Philippine government issued contradictory statements about the travel ban.

“Overseas Filipino workers are not prohibited from returning to China if they have a visa and work permit there,” Philippine Ambassador to China Jose Santiago Sta. Romana told the Philippine News Agency in Beijing on Sunday. The “temporary ban on Filipinos from travel to China and its Special Administrative Regions” only covered Filipino tourists, he added.

However, that report was taken down from the internet. The Philippine News Agency then published another article citing Bureau of Immigration spokesperson Dana Sandoval, who clarified that the temporary travel ban did not make any distinction for overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) who were home for vacation and wished to return to China, Hong Kong or Macau for work.

She said the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) and the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) would assist Filipinos with work permits in the three places affected by the temporary travel ban.

On Monday, hundreds of Filipino domestic workers were stranded at Manila airport as they were not allowed to depart for China, Hong Kong and Macau. Some failed to depart  due to the cancellation of some flights.

Betty Yung Ma Shan-yee, chairwoman of the Hong Kong Employers of Overseas Domestic Helpers Association, told the Hong Kong media that she had contacted the Philippine Consulate General of Hong Kong on Tuesday morning and was told that the Philippine government’s latest travel ban was aimed at tourists, instead of domestic workers.

Citing a labor official at the consulate general, Yung said the travel ban was a temporary measure. She said hopefully the problem would be resolved within a short time as officials of the Hong Kong and Philippine governments were going to meet on Tuesday afternoon.

Yung called on Hong Kong employers to stay calm and not to terminate employment contracts with their domestic workers. She also said employers should not rush to arrange transit flights for their domestic workers as the workers could still be stuck in other countries.

Yung said her association had so far received calls from more than 100 Hong Kong employers who had their domestic workers stuck at Manila airport.

Cheung Kit-man, chairman of Hong Kong Employment Agencies Association, estimated that close to 1,000 Filipino domestic workers were waiting to depart Manila airport, 40% of which were holding new employment contracts. Cheung said a lot of employers were worried that the Indonesian government would impose a similar travel ban to Hong Kong, which would bar Indonesian domestic workers from coming to Hong Kong.

As of March 2019, a total of 391,586 foreign domestic workers were employed in Hong Kong, according to a document submitted by the Labor and Welfare Department to the Legislative Council. Among them, 214,211, or 55%, came from the Philippines, 168,060, or 43%, from Indonesia and 4,557, or 1%, from India. The remaining 1% came from Thailand, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

In Hong Kong, foreign domestic workers have to renew their contracts every two years.

Foreign domestic workers face a rising risk of being infected with the Wuhan virus in Hong Kong, especially when serving some families with connections to Wuhan relatives.

Read: First Wuhan virus death reported in Hong Kong

Read: Hong Kong urged to strengthen anti-virus measures

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