Hong Kong’s recent announcement of plans to require mandatory vaccination against COVID-19 for foreign domestic workers quickly drew international criticism from Filipino officials, as well as a number of labor and human rights advocacy groups. The proposed plan, released by Hong Kong’s government in early May, promulgated a mandate under which all foreign domestic workers would require vaccinations before their employment contracts could be renewed. On May 11, less than two weeks after this announcement, the government retracted its vaccination plan, in response to the negative backlash it amassed in the international community.
According to CNN, Hong Kong is currently home to nearly 390,000 domestic workers and helpers, the staggering majority of which are immigrants from the Philippines and Indonesia. The government’s proposed vaccine measure drew claims of discriminatory and unfair targeting of domestic workers as no other foreign workforce was included in this mandatory requirement. The Philippines consul general, Raly Rejada, said in an interview with The Guardian his office had been supportive of Hong Kong’s free vaccine program, but “if it was to become mandatory for work contracts then it should be non-discriminatory and include other non-resident workers who are similarly situated so that there is no feeling of being singled out.”
Eman Villanueva, a spokesperson for the Asian Migrants Coordinating Body, said that mandatory vaccinations were “discrimination and social exclusion of domestic workers at its worst” and likened the government’s plan to “blackmailing” workers by predicating employment upon vaccination.
The concerns of vaccine discrimination in Hong Kong highlight deeply rooted social and economic inequalities that have plagued the city’s foreign domestic workers and helpers for years. Of the 390,000 domestic workers in Hong Kong, 99% are women. This group comprises one of the city’s most vulnerable and unprotected groups. Issues of poor living and working conditions are common for domestic workers. A 2020 survey of Hong Kong’s domestic workers conducted by advocacy organization Mission for Migrant Workers (MFMW) found that 15 percent of respondents reported being physically abused during employment and two percent reported being sexually abused or harassed.
The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent proposed vaccine mandate from the government have underlined the precarious position of foreign domestic workers, often women, in Hong Kong’s society and economy. These women have become known as the “backbone” of the economy—a CNN report found that domestic workers contribute nearly 4 percent to the local GDP based on personal expenditure, the tasks they carry out at local rates, and the value of free leisure time for the mothers of families they are employed by. These foreign domestic workers allow Hong Kong residents to stay in the labor market by caring for their young children and elderly family members while they are at work. Despite their prevalence and importance in Hong Kong, these workers have little to no protection in the labor market. Manuela Basto, a spokesperson for Hong Kong-based NGO HELP for Domestic Workers says domestic workers can be terminated indiscriminately and that it is not unusual for women to be fired for becoming sick or weak. “While it’s illegal to fire a domestic worker while they are on sick leave, it can be difficult for a foreigner to take legal action because without a visa they have two weeks to leave Hong Kong,” says Basto.
The vulnerability of these Filipino and Indonesian workers underscores much broader trends of health inequities and race-based discrimination in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Racial, social, and economic determinants of health outcomes bear great importance in understanding the spread, response, and governance of public health policies. Class and race-based discrimination, in the case of the foreign domestic workers, led tying work contracts to vaccines, a move that directly and disproportionately affects both the physical and financial wellbeing of these communities.