The Underprivileged in a City under Pandemic

外籍勞工與都市防疫

Cyrus Chan Ming Tat 陳銘達

隨著第三輪疫情在香港爆發,陸續有外傭在廉租宿舍確診,市民和本地媒體普遍關注,唯恐病毒在傭工間傳播。然而,狹小的宿舍環境只是外傭在港生活問題的冰山一角,疫症之下,長年被市場合理化的惡劣居住環境對城市展露威脅。本文試從外傭在假日進駐香港街頭的情況切入,論述她們對都市空間的需要。再從疫症在新加坡外勞群組中的大規模爆發,探討弱勢社群在城市窘迫的生活空間和防疫的關係。

Sunday Walk in Central

Today is 17 July 2020. Hong Kong has reported an unprecedented high number of 108 daily confirmed cases of coronavirus infection. Fear penetrates the city as cases rocket in its the third wave of inflection. There is a sense of discordance in World Wide House, where hundreds of Filipino domestic workers still crowd into the four-storey shopping mall, busy with their usual Sunday routine.

     World Wide House has long been the centre of capital and material exchange for the more than 189,000 Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong.¹ It is home to about 220 small shops, each , typically with an area of 10-20 square metres, that provide a wide variety of services and goods aimed at meeting those domestic workers’ needs: including remittance and overseas courier services, mobile phones and electric appliances, jewellery stores, beauty parlours and real estate agencies. Thousands of workers visit every Sunday to remit their hard-earned money home and purchase groceries and gifts for their families. These are then handed to delivery companies offering duty-and-tax free courier services. Workers gather around the corners of Connaught Road Central, Pedder Street and Des Voeux Road Central to fill up the iconic red-white-blue carriage bags and boxes while those awaiting delivery line up along Chater Road.

     After settling their business at World Wide House, Filipino workers spend the rest of their off day around Central, occupying different kinds of public spaces such as streets, pedestrian footbridges, tunnels, parks, open plazas, and accessible podium roofs. They gather all the way from the Central Ferry Pier to the north, to Cheung Kong Park to the south, from Lambeth Walk Rest Garden to the east to the pedestrian footbridge connecting to Infinitus Plaza to the west. Most assemble in small groups, though some mingle freely. Groups delineate boundaries using cardboard from cartons to create pockets of private spaces in the public realm.

Vulnerable Workers, Vulnerable City

Such ordinary Sunday scenes in Central diverge from what we expect under the coronavirus prevention measures now enacted in Hong Kong. This is not an indication of the workers’ disregard for public health, but a reflection of having no viable alternative for their spatial demands even at a time of social distancing.

    Hong Kong has about 352,000 foreign domestic workers, mostly from Philippines (53.7%) and Indonesia (43.8%). These people account for 4.8% of the total population and 9.3% of the local workforce. More than 99% of them are women. Under the terms of their employment contracts, foreign domestic workers are required to live in their employer’s home. Only on public holidays, can they spend a day away from their workplace and socialise with their community. With a standard monthly wage of HK$4,630, they are unable to afford expensive entertainment. For most, their primary goal in coming to the city is to accrue savings for their families back home. Public space is thus the only choice they have for their time off on Sundays. Society’s general acceptance of foreign domestic workers occupying public space on Sundays signals an intangible remedy for their shortage of social benefits. In Hong Kong, public parks and plazas, statutorily defined as Public Pleasure Grounds, are governed under CAP 132BC Pleasure Grounds Regulation. Managed by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, they have strict and clearly defined terms of use in strict contrast to the more general ambiguous principles of control over general activities applied to streets and other informal public spaces. This ambiguity enables public spaces to absorb the spatial needs of domestic workers and allows a wide range of functional purposes. As long as it does not create an immediate nuisance to the neighbourhood, activities are more or less tolerated. Domestic helpers can sing, eat, cook, dance, sleep, play music, party and have fun in these spaces. It is a simple solution to alleviate their leisure needs that at the same time avoids public expenditure.

     Hong Kongers often find themselves entangled in an ambivalent mentality about the treatment of these workers, While most appreciate the effort and contribution of foreign domestic workers as an irreplaceable part of the workforce, they are also reluctant to share public resources with them. We appear to unwittingly assume that this is all that is needed for their well-being. Amidst the pandemic, however, the lack of social support to foreign domestic workers rendered both them and society vulnerable.

Foreign Workers and the Coronavirus Outbreak in Singapore

The difficult situation faced by foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong is mirrored in Singapore with its migrant labour. Since its first confirmed case on 23 January, the Singapore government has taken prompt action carrying out health checks, imposing quarantine measures and conducting tests on all suspected cases. Singapore then managed to keep its case numbers low and trackable for several weeks, leading to the World Health Organisation’s Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus describing it as a ‘good example of an all-of-government approach.² That changed the following month, as the total number of confirmed cases surged to 16,196 as the virus spread rapidly through government-built dormitories accommodating more than 200,000 foreign workers.³ Mainly from Bangladesh, India and China, these foreign workers, employed in Singapore’s construction and shipping industries, live together in dormitories each containing bunk beds for twelve or more workers. In such an environment, the virus spread rapidly. As was noted by Dr. Hsu Li Yang, associate professor at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, ‘the virus has been very efficient at highlighting to us the weaknesses of our societies – that’s certainly the case for the migrant worker communities.’ He added stated that while the provision of space per resident in worker dormitory complied with international requirements, the severity of the outbreak showed the inadequacy of this standard in preventing disease.⁴

Accommodation and Liveability for the Underprivileged

The outbreak in Singapore reveals how the lack of healthy and livable accommodation for the underprivileged can undermine a city’s pandemic defences. Similarly, many foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong reside in tough conditions. Although it is required in standard contract that employers should provide domestic workers with suitable accommodation and with reasonable privacy, in residential projects, the domestic worker’s room is often barely squeezed in. In 2015, Ming Pao reported that a domestic worker’s room in The Hemera, a private housing project in Tseung Kwan O, measured just 0.85 metres by 1.8 metres – barely enough for an under-sized single bed.⁵ More than half (52%) of foreign domestic workers do not have their own room.⁶ In newspaper reports and advertisements showcasing interior design of apartments, it is common to find highly questionable accommodation arrangements for domestic workers, such as placing their sleeping area in a cabinet or a corner of toilet.⁷ Despite all these cases, Hong Kong has no clear definition on suitable accommodation standards for domestic workers, nor do the authorities carry out regular inspections of their living conditions.

     Dense cities such as Hong Kong and Singapore will always face a threat from diseases such as Covid-19.  Professor Teo Yik Ying, Dean of NUS Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, underlines the public health risks posed by poor accommodation during a pandemic, saying ‘We need to start preparing the world… there are communities where people are living very closely packed together. What happens when Coronavirus enters?’ In this essay, I have explored the housing issues foreign workers face and how the Covid-19 pandemic has unequivocally worsened their plight. In a city as prosperous as Hong Kong, building professionals can play a role in protecting those crucial to our society by advocating for housing and urban design standards better able to counter epidemic risks.

Cyrus Chan Ming Tat is a member of the post 90s generation. He has a MPhil in Architecture and Urban Design from the University of Cambridge and is an Hong Kong Scholarship for Excellence Scheme awardee.
陳銘達,香港90後,劍橋大學建築及城市設計學碩士,香港卓越獎學金得獎人。

¹ Legislative Council Secretariat Research Office (2017), ‘Foreign domestic helpers and evolving care duties in Hong Kong,’ Research Brief, Issue No. 4. 2017.
² Teo, J (2020), ‘Coronavirus: WHO praises Singapore’s containment of Coronavirus outbreak,’ The Straits Times, 10 March 2020.
³ Yea, S (2020), ‘This is why Singapore’s coronavirus cases are growing: a look inside the dismal living conditions of migrant workers,’ The Conversation, 30 April 2020.
⁴ NUS (2020), ‘CORONAVIRUS outbreak highlights weaknesses of society,’ NUS, 13 April 2020.
⁵ Ming Pao (2015), ‘緻藍天單位現16 呎工人房 房內難伸手 不足擺放單人牀’(16 sq ft worker’s room in The Herema. Too small to stretch, too small even for a single bed), Ming Pao, 25 March 2020.
⁶ Mission for Migrant Workers (2020), MFMW Service Report 2019.
⁷ See the following newspaper reports: Kwong, T. (2005)‘理想家居:為囝囡製相連單位造200 呎大廳’(Ideal home: a 200-foot hall with connected units for kids), Apple Daily, 3 November 2005. East Week (2009) ‘名人家居:藝術寶庫 靳埭強’ (Celebrity Home: An Artistic Vault), East Week, 27 May 2009. Apple Daily (2010) ‘深井縉皇居 自製相連享靚景 18 呎闊落地窗賞山海’ (Luxury unit at Ocean Pointe, 18 ft glass window offers panoramic views), Apple Daily, 25 July 2010. Census and Statistics Department (2018), ‘Persons Living in Subdivided Units’, Hong Kong 2016 Population By-census, Thematic Report 2018.

Fig 1 Domestic workers gathering on Chater Road, Central

Fig 2 Worker’s room layout in an apartment in The Hemera, circa 2015.

Fig 3 Overseas delivery package on Chater Road, Central.