CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Sunday, 1 September 2019

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Worker safety clashes with employer interest

HONG KONG (SE): Following the deaths of several domestic workers falling from high rise apartment buildings while cleaning the outside of windows, the Philippine Consulate General to Hong Kong sought to place a clause in all contracts signed by its nationals in the future banning the task.

After initially announcing a date for the inclusion of such a clause, it backed off and on October 17 held meetings with the Hong Kong Labour Department, chaired by the commissioner, Carlson Chan Ka-shun, to further discuss the matter.

Following the deaths of their compatriots, the Philippine community in Hong Kong has held prayer rallies calling for the ban and for the government to pay greater attention to their safety in carrying out dangerous jobs.

The question the community now has to ask itself is can the interests of the employer be protected, while at the same time ensuring the safety of the worker in what can be an inherently dangerous task.

The Philippine Consulate General said in a press release on October 18 that at the meeting with the Labour Department both parties agreed that the safety of workers should be the paramount issue.

It says, “Under no circumstances should an employer subject a domestic worker to unsafe working conditions and tasks.”

No decision was made at the meeting, but the two parties did agree to revisit the issue. 

However, further discussions will not be in the context of a complete ban on the practice, but rather the content of a revamped safety clause.

This represents a backtrack on the initial tough stand taken by the consulate, as it now seeks to ensure the safety of the worker, while at the same time protecting the interests of the employer.

The press release from the consulate says that an effort will be made to find a balance between occupational safety and the concerns of the employer, while at the same time coming up with a policy in line with best practice and international standards.

Currently, two options are being considered.

The first suggestion being put forward is that when the outside of a window is being cleaned by a domestic worker, either the employer personally, or a responsible adult representing the employer must be physically present to supervise the work.

In this case, supervise means more than simply being there to watch people fall out, but be part of ensuring a safe way of carrying out the task and physically ensuring the worker’s safety.

It also puts the legal responsibility for the worker’s safety on the employer.

The second option under consideration for the suggested clause is that only windows where a secure grille has been installed to prevent falling are to be cleaned, so that there is no opportunity for a fatal accident to occur.

For its part, the Labour Department undertook to run education and training programmes to heighten public awareness on occupational safety, an issue that is generally widely neglected in Hong Kong.

A visiting industrial lawyer from Australia commented to the Sunday Examiner that the absence of safety practices on building sites in the city is evidenced by the lack of notices marking restricted zones and other safety features.

“As a newcomer, it was the first thing that struck me,” he said.

In addition, migrant domestic workers are especially vulnerable to the whims of careless employers, as most have debts and do not feel free to refuse to do any task, even though they can see the danger involved in performing it.

As their saying goes, “We do the three Ds: difficult, dirty and dangerous.”

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