Silka Tsuen Wan Hotel has become a quarantine hotel for domestic workers. Photo: Google Maps

Hong Kong reopened its borders to foreign domestic workers from Indonesia and the Philippines On Monday, but fewer than 20 per day can enter the city due to the limited number of quarantine hotel rooms.

Employer groups said it was extremely difficult to secure a hotel room for their maids or helpers for the 21-day quarantine period. They said it was ridiculous that only a few hundred domestic workers could arrive in Hong Kong in the coming weeks, while at least 6,000 to 7,000 were waiting to fly in.

Labor rights groups said it was discriminatory that domestic workers were required to stay in one designated hotel, while all other incoming travelers could choose from more than 30 hotels. They said such an arrangement made people think domestic workers were a high-risk group.

Hong Kong has had rising demands for domestic workers for several years. Since last year, the supply of workers has decreased as many who went home for holidays could not return due to tough quarantine requirements.

At the end of last year, the number of domestic workers fell by 25,436 to 373,884 from 399,320 a year ago, according to the Immigration Department.

The situation became worse after the government banned flights from the Philippines on April 20 and from Indonesia on June 21. To retain staff, many employers are now paying about HK$6,000 (US$596), about 30% up from the minimum monthly wage of HK$4,630.

After some employer groups called for help from consulates general of the Philippines and Indonesia and the Hong Kong government, the two countries and Hong Kong reached an agreement last week that would allow vaccinated domestic workers to enter the city from Monday.

However, only 409 rooms were initially available at the Silka Tsuen Wan Hotel. That means in the coming weeks, fewer than 20 domestic workers per day could arrive in Hong Kong.

Filipino maids during a weekend gathering on a street in Central, Hong Kong. Photo: AFP

The compulsory 21-night stay at the quarantine hotel will cost HK$16,800, more than 3.5 times the minimum monthly wage for a maid. Employers will pay the bill. The charge is said to be 78% higher than the normal level.

Despite the premium charge, the Silka Tsuen Wan Hotel was fully booked early on Monday morning, with no rooms available until November. The first batch of Filipino domestic workers will arrive in Hong Kong on Wednesday, while Indonesian helpers will come later as some problems about recognizing vaccine certificates have yet to be resolved.

Thomas Chan Tung-fung, the chairman of the Hong Kong Union of Employment Agencies, said Monday that the union’s members demanded 120 to 130 rooms at the hotel, but were only offered eight.

Chan said at least two more hotels should be added to the scheme. He also said the quarantine expenses, plus other fees of about HK$20,000, were too much for many families.

Michael Li Hon-shing, the executive director of the Federation of Hong Kong Hotel Owners, said some hotels told the government they wanted to join the scheme, but were denied with no reason being given. Li said the hotel sector was confused by the government’s decision to limit the number of quarantine hotel rooms.

Ho Pak-leung, a clinical associate professor at the Department of Microbiology at the University of Hong Kong, said it was necessary to control the number of hotel rooms for newly arrived domestic workers as some had been found to be infected after the 21-day quarantine period.

Ho urged the government to cap the quarantine hotel occupancy rate at 75%.

Meanwhile, labor rights groups criticized the government’s decision to mandate domestic workers entering Hong Kong to quarantine in designated hotels.

Nicole Kidman films a scene in a market in Hong Kong on August 23. Photo: AFP / Isaac Lawrence

“We strongly condemn the discriminatory nature of this policy. It is all the more difficult to understand because in the months prior, domestic workers were able to quarantine in hotels chosen by their employers without any limitation,” the Hong Kong Federation of Asian Domestic Workers Unions (FADWU) said in a statement.

“Such an arbitrary restriction exacerbates the discrimination domestic workers face in Hong Kong. It deepens the scapegoating of migrants as allegedly more likely to spread Coved-19.”

The FADWU said this false and harmful perception had already stripped many domestic workers of their right to spend their rest days outside their employers’ house. It added that it was concerned about the lack of assurances from the government that quarantine expenses would be paid by employers, not domestic workers.

It said some workers had complained their employers asked them to pay the quarantine expenses.

The International Migrants Alliance also said the requirement to quarantine in one hotel would single out domestic workers and was a form of discrimination.

Twenty-five countries oare now n Hong Kong’s list of Group A, or high-risk, specified places, including the Philippines and Indonesia. People coming from these places can choose to stay in one of 35 designated hotels during their 21-day quarantine period. The costs for a single room with three meals range from HK$400 to HK$2,000 per day.

Law Chi-kwong, the Secretary for Labour and Welfare, said there would only be one hotel initially for the scheme so helpers would come to Hong Kong in an orderly manner. Law said the government would gradually increase the number of quarantine hotel rooms, depending on the epidemic situation.

In May, the Hong Kong government said all of Hong Kong’s 370,000 foreign domestic workers would be required to be vaccinated if they wanted to renew their working visas. Law said at that time that domestic workers could choose not to work in Hong Kong if they did not want to get the jabs.

Philippine Consul General to Hong Kong Raly Tejada said 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.

The Hong Kong government later dropped the plan, but did not issue an apology. The Labor Department said it would continue to communicate with the consulates general to Hong Kong on the matter.

On August 19, the government was criticized by the public after it granted a quarantine exemption to actress Nicole Kidman and four crew members, who came from Australia to Hong Kong to film an Amazon-funded series about the lives of wealthy expats.

According to the rules, Kidman should have served seven days of quarantine after arriving in Hong Kong. The government said it had a special team to monitor the situation and ensure that the five people would not walk freely on the streets.

From August 20, the quarantine period for people coming from Australia doubled to 14 days.

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