Labor right groups say domestic workers face discrimination by mandatory tests and vaccinations. Photo: RTHK

Requiring all Hong Kong’s 370,000 foreign domestic workers to get Covid tests before May 9 and be vaccinated if they want to renew their working visas is not discriminatory, officials say.

The government was not stigmatizing domestic helpers as the decision was made after two helpers were diagnosed with the mutated strain of the coronavirus, Health Secretary Sophia Chan said.

It was working on the details, including whether those with health problems could be exempt and the responsibilities of employers to helpers who develop severe side-effects after inoculation, Chan said.

She added that the measures were intended to reduce risk, as helpers often work with elderly people and the very young.

“It’s important for us to build herd immunity so that everybody is being protected, including those who can’t be vaccinated. There’s no discrimination in the measures the government recently came up with,” she said.

Concerns about discrimination

Last Friday, the government launched a mandatory test scheme and a new vaccination rule for domestic workers after a 39-year-old Filipino maid who lived with her employers and a 10-month-old baby in Tung Chung tested positive on April 29. She carried a highly contagious virus with N501Y and E484K mutations, which could have come from South Africa.

Over the weekend, thousands of domestic workers spent hours to queuing for tests. Some helpers said they hoped they could be compensated with another day-off as tests had become their duties. It was a public holiday last Saturday, marking Labor Day.

Domestic workers queue up for virus tests in Central. Photo: RTHK

Some others said the plan to make vaccination a visa requirement made them feel they were being discriminated against and treated unfairly. They said their employers should also be tested and get mandatory vaccinations.

Philippine Consul General to Hong Kong Raly Tejada said Saturday that the Hong Kong government should not force domestic workers to get Covid-19 vaccines. The measure would be non-discriminatory only if it was applied to all foreign workers.

Philippines’ Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr tweeted, “Though the effect is good and saving, still marking them out smacks of discrimination and if it is a special favor, it is unfair to other nationalities. Hong Kong can do better than that.”

Eni Lestari, chairperson of the International Migrants Alliance, told RTHK that the plans for mandatory vaccines for helpers was unfair.

“The truth is, a lot of employers also do not get vaccinated because of health, personal, or even political reasons, and therefore they do not even force their workers to be vaccinated,” she said. “Why are domestic workers always being targeted, every time there is an outbreak?”

However, Equal Opportunities Commission chairman Ricky Chu said Monday that mandatory tests and vaccinations for domestic workers were not discriminatory as they only targeted a specific profession. Chu said any measures aimed at protecting public health – including epidemic-prevention measures – were reasonable and necessary even if they caused differential treatment.

Asked by RTHK if the measures should be imposed on other foreign workers in Hong Kong for the sake of fairness, Chu said it was extremely difficult to come up with a measure that is not differential.

The Labor Department said it would continue to communicate with the consulate generals to Hong Kong about the coming vaccination program for foreign domestic workers.

Transmission chain

Over the weekend, medical experts at the University of Hong Kong said the viral samples from the domestic worker in Tung Chung and an Indian engineer who came to Hong Kong from Dubai and tested positive after his 21-day quarantine had an identical genomic sequence.

Yuen Kwok-yung, a microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong, said as the two people did not know each other and did not visit the same place, it was likely that the variant strain had already spread in the community. Yuen said the government had to take urgent action to find out the transmission chain and stop it.

He also said there could be leakage in border control or quarantine measures, or problems with sampling and testing procedures had led to false negative findings.

“It is quite likely that the Indian man who completed the 21-day hotel quarantine and was released into the community on April 9 actually sparked off some silent transmission in the community, said David Hui, chairman of the Department of Medicine and Therapeutics at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. There was no need to panic or revise social distancing measures, saying that stepping up testing is the right move, Hui said.

The Center for Health Protection said only two imported cases were reported on Sunday. Hong Kong has not recorded any local infection for three straight days.

Flight ban from India

On Sunday, India recorded more than 390,000 Covid cases. More than 20 countries and places have introduced a ban on flights from India.

The Australian government has closed its borders to anyone in India, including Australian nationals. After Western Australian Medical Association president Andrew Miller slammed the measure as a “complete disgrace,” Education Minister Alan Tudge defended the government’s approach and said it was a temporary measure.

Some other countries, such as South Korea, arranged special flights for their nationals to go home. On April 14, Hong Kong introduced a ban on flights from India, Pakistan and the Philippines and extended the measure last week.

Read: HK’s domestic workers ordered to be tested by May 9