Coronavirus: domestic helper shortage continues to plague Hong Kong as number of such workers hits new low
Secretary for Labour and Welfare Law Chi-kwong says flight bans as a result of Omicron outbreak cancelled out efforts to make more quarantine facilities available. Number of domestic helpers in city has dropped to 339,451 by the end of December from about 400,000 in January 2020
The number of domestic helpers in Hong Kong has fallen to 339,451 by the end of December, according to labour chief Law Chi-kwong. Photo: Nora Tam. Hong Kong families struggling amid a shortage of domestic helpers have yet to see the light at the end of the tunnel, after the number of such workers in the past two years hit a new low of about 339,000, the city’s labour chief has said.Writing on his official blog, Secretary for Labour and Welfare Law Chi-kwong said authorities had made progress in finding more quarantine facilities for incoming domestic helpers, before the Omicron coronavirus variant began to affect Hong Kong and Southeast Asia last month.
“In mid-December, we made headway in increasing quarantine facilities for helpers … but such ‘dawning light’ soon vanished,” he said. “It was because the pandemic situation in the Philippines had rocketed … In early January, more than 40 per cent of 175 Filipino domestic helpers tested positive. It was very shocking.” Law said the number of domestic helpers had decreased in Hong Kong in the past two years, noting that there were about 400,000 of them in the city in January 2020. They mainly come from the Philippines or Indonesia. That figure dropped to 350,050 in November last year, and then to 339,451 by the end of December. It was the lowest figure since at least the end of 2016, when there were 351,513 helpers in Hong Kong. The Post has reached out to the government for pre-2016 statistics.
From September to November last year, the figure decreased month-on-month by about 1,300 to 1,900. But from November to December, the number fell by more than 10,000.
Law said he feared the figure indicated that many Filipino helpers could have been left stranded by the flight ban after returning home for the Christmas and New Year holidays, adding the government would closely monitor the situation in both the Philippines and Indonesia. “[In mid-January,] the average number of coronavirus infections in the Philippines peaked at about 35,000 per day. Now it has decreased by about a third, but we don’t know whether it … will reach a low level so that the flights can be resumed,” he said. The pandemic situation in Indonesia was also worsening, albeit at a slower pace than in the Philippines, he added. At the start of the pandemic, domestic helpers were allowed to be isolated for a fortnight in dozens of quarantine hotels for incoming travellers. Authorities later lengthened the quarantine period for all visitors to three weeks, and only designated a few hotels, as well as about 1,000 units in the government-run Penny’s Bay quarantine centre, for arriving helpers. Law said authorities had managed to find more quarantine hotels for incoming helpers in August last year, but the effect was cancelled out as the Penny’s Bay spaces were reserved for other purposes. “Even those domestic helpers who had yet to finish their quarantine had to be moved to the designated hotels,” he noted.
The Labour Department said on Thursday that apart from the three designated quarantine hotels for incoming helpers, two more facilities – O’Hotel and iclub Ma Tau Wai Hotel – would be made available.
The hotels will provide an additional 491 rooms, taking the total number of quarantine spaces for arriving helpers to 2,779. More quarantine hotel rooms needed for domestic workers: Hong Kong minister. Mike Cheung, president of the Hong Kong-based Overseas Employment Centre, said Law should consider allowing helpers to be quarantined in other hotels, not just the designated five. “This two-track policy was adopted due to uncertainty about anti-pandemic measures in the Philippines and Indonesia. Now that we can see the domestic helpers are not bringing the coronavirus to Hong Kong, employers should be allowed to book other quarantine hotels,” he argued. But Betty Yung Ma Shan-yee, chairwoman of the Hong Kong Employers of Overseas Domestic Helpers Association, said she was not so sure about relaxing the rules for helpers, especially when the government had recently shortened the quarantine period for all incoming travellers from three weeks to two.
Latest ban as city braces for a fifth wave of infections leads to frantic scramble among travellers to cancel and rebook flights, hotel rooms Industry figures warn domestic helper shortage will worsen, and if long wait continues, market may move elsewhere. Hong Kong’s two-week flight ban has dashed the hopes of those planning family reunions as well as disrupted plans for incoming domestic helpers, with the Philippines, Britain and the United States among eight countries hit with tightened rules aimed at containing a Covid-19 surge. Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor announced on Wednesday the ban on passenger flights from Australia, Britain, Canada, France, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, and the United States for 14 days until January 21, starting from Saturday. Travellers who were recently in those countries or had transited through them will be barred from returning to the city for two weeks.Government pandemic advisers also warned earlier on Wednesday that a fifth wave of infections had started, calling on authorities to immediately tighten social-distancing rules to cut off up to 10 invisible transmission chains in the community.
A popular Facebook group for travellers to Hong Kong was flooded with messages following Lam’s announcement, as people scrambled to clarify the rules and rebook tickets. Some residents were looking to do a “wash out”, which means staying for 21 days in a country that has not been banned, before returning to Hong Kong. Some complained they had already changed their flights and hotel bookings numerous times, as airlines have cancelled or suspended routes to Hong Kong in recent weeks. Many speculated that the flight suspension of the eight countries would be extended beyond the current two weeks, pointing to previous examples last year. A 33-year-old investment banker, who asked to remain anonymous, had travelled to Britain on December 18 to visit his parents who live there, rather than asking them to come back to their hometown and face quarantine for 21 days. His wife and baby daughter had already flown out in August. The family had planned to fly back together in January, typically a busy time of the year for his industry. His flight was cancelled and rebooked for January 15, before the suspension was announced. He said while his US firm in Hong Kong was understanding, the situation was not ideal as he was now considering spending 21 days in a third country to return. “I do think things will only get worse and not better in Hong Kong. So my inclination is that the flight ban will be extended, which makes it very difficult, then what do I do?” he lamented. The banker said he knew “a lot” of people from the finance sector who had moved back to their home countries permanently or earlier than they had originally planned, with others considering leaving the city. Hong Kong has stood firm on its zero-Covid stance, aligned with mainland China. “They can’t handle the uncertainty. A lot of them just need to see their family,” he said.