Foreign domestic workers at the Victoria Park in Causeway Bay Photo: Asia Times

The Hong Kong government has been urged by a medical expert to conduct mass Covid-19 testing on about 7,000 foreign domestic workers who are staying in local boarding houses for visa renewals.

The call came after a 37-year-old Indonesian domestic worker tested positive on Tuesday, raising concerns that she could have infected dozens of others when she stayed in three dormitories last month. At least one of the workers has gone to a new employer’s home. 

Ho Pak-leung, head of the University of Hong Kong’s Center for Infection, said about 6,000 to 7,000 foreign domestic helpers were living in hundreds of boarding houses. Given that most of the 54,000 infected people in Singapore were migrant workers living in dormitories, the Hong Kong government should not underestimate the risk of infection clusters at crowded boarding houses.

Ho said the government must act quickly and test these workers. He believed it could be done in a day if authorities had the determination.

The Center of Health Protection said an Indonesian domestic worker left her former employer’s home on July 20 and stayed overnight at an apartment of the Sunlights Employment Agency in North Point. There were 13 other domestic workers in the same facility.

Between July 21 and 25, she moved to an apartment of the KL Home Care at 375 Lockhart Road, Wan Chai, staying with 28 domestic workers. Between July 29 and August 1, she was staying with four domestic workers at an apartment in the Causeway Bay Commercial Building but she then developed symptoms. Police were still investigating where she had stayed between July 26 and 28.

Separately, another Indonesian domestic worker tested positive preliminarily on Thursday. She left her former employer on June 30 and had been staying with four to six domestic workers in an apartment of the Apik Employment Agency in Sheung Wan for the whole of July.

She arrived at her new employer’s home on August 1 but felt ill on August 4. She was sent to a hotel by her employer in Tseung Kwan O and was then found to be infected. Her employer’s family are now being quarantined.

Currently, only newly arrived domestic workers are required to be quarantined in hotels for 14 days. It is not mandatory for employers to arrange quarantine for their locally hired foreign domestic workers.

Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the communicable disease branch of the Center for Health Protection, said she was worried by the cases in dormitories, which are usually crowded and have shared toilets. She said massive outbreaks similar to those in Singapore could happen in Hong Kong.

She said everyone in Hong Kong, including domestic workers, should avoid social gatherings on days off.

In the 24 hours to noon on Thursday, Singapore preliminarily confirmed 301 more cases, the vast majority of whom lived in foreign worker dormitories. As of Thursday, more than 54,000 cases have been identified in the city state with deaths standing at 27. 

In Hong Kong, 95 cases were recorded in the 24 hours on Wednesday, comprising four imported cases, 52 that could be linked to previous ones and 39 with unknown sources. It was the third consecutive day that Hong Kong recorded fewer than a hundred cases per day.

Due to the government’s work-from-home arrangements, visa processing for domestic workers has slowed down, forcing thousands of domestic helpers to stay in dormitories as they await jobs, said Teresa Liu, chairwoman of the Association of Hong Kong Manpower Agencies.

A dormitory which housed eight to 10 workers in the past now houses up to dozens, Liu said.

Liu said several dozen maids represented by her firm have been barred from leaving their boarding house and are required to wear masks at all times. However, she acknowledged not all agencies can be that rigorous.

She said she did not think mass testing of domestic workers in dormitories was a good idea. She said it would be hard to track the workers, who were staying in boarding houses only for days or weeks. 

Read: Hong Kong turns Covid corner as new cases decline