CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Sunday, 1 September 2019

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No win-win in window cleaning standoff

HONG KONG (SE): The Philippine Consulate General to Hong Kong has backed off on its initial hardline demand that would ban its nationals from cleaning exterior windows in high rise apartments and now seems prepared to settle for a controversial arrangement that suits the government of Hong Kong and few others.

Secretary for Labour and Welfare, Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, is reported to be about to release a new arrangement that will permit cleaning of ground floor windows and those on any floor that have safety grills fitted or safety balconies outside.

For the open type of window, a suggestion that the work must be supervised by the employer, or a designated representative of the employer, is popular with neither employers nor domestic workers.

Employers object because they fear they will become legally responsible, so in the event of a worker falling there could be criminal implications for failure of duty of care, civil cases that exonerate insurance companies from payouts and blacklisting from employing a domestic worker in the future.

Workers are not particularly thrilled either, as they believe that if the job is too dangerous for the employer to carry out, then they should not be expected to do it either, as all lives are of equal value.

A support group for employers sent a petition to the chief executive of Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying, calling for a bar on the Philippine Overseas Labour Organisation’s attempted block.

The letter cites four points. It states that most windows are fitted with grills (which is not true), it is an unreasonable condition, not in the standard contract and imposes a limit on the tasks workers can be told to do.

The government responded saying that the safety of the worker is paramount and the number one consideration.

The list of complaints reads like it may be the end of life in Hong Kong as we know it.

However, Eman Villanueva, from United Filipinos, told the Sun that a ban on window cleaning is not unusual, as one has been in force in Singapore since 2012 as a result of accidents involving domestic workers.

But Hong Kong has baulked at the idea, because it does not want to open the floodgates to other concern groups demanding changes in the standard employment contract, including an employers’ organisation that is pushing for a probationary period for newly hired domestic workers.

For his part, Cheung is placing great faith in public education, but he is dealing with an employer group that has proven to be pretty hard headed in the past over issues concerning the welfare of domestic workers.

Migrant domestic workers are a particularly vulnerable group, as in a real sense they are indentured labour, because the cost of procuring a job overseas is so high it leaves many with otherwise unpayable debts, so they cannot afford to refuse any instruction from an employer and take the risk of being fired.

The situation seems far from the win-win outcome that Cheung said he was aiming for, but at least the passivity towards domestic worker issues of the Hong Kong government has had a rocket put up it by the threatened ban from the Philippine Overseas Labour Organisation and the visit of the labour secretary from Manila, Silvestro Bello, in September.

But the way it is heading there could be losses all round, except of course for the vested interests.

Philippine labour attaché, Jalilo Dela Torre, said that he still believes prohibition would be the effective way to go.

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