There has been another outbreak involving a dormitory of foreign domestic helpers (FDHs) in Hong Kong, and one of them has even infected all members of the family she works for. The government has announced that it will provide one-time free testing for all FDHs in Hong Kong. That seems to be the right remedy, but it is doubtful whether it will actually tackle the issue at root. The tests will be conducted over a span of one month and a half and will not be mandatory. As many FDHs are worried about their livelihood more than the risk of infection, we will have to wait and see how many people will actively participate in the testing scheme. Most FDH dormitories are unlicensed and have poor living conditions. As early as the third wave of the pandemic, many people pointed out that FDH dormitories were a major loophole, and they asked the Hong Kong government to strengthen supervision and enforcement. But so far, there has been no significant improvement, as different departments are working separately and shift the responsibility of supervision onto each other. From the spread of the virus on public housing estates under the ''wake effect'' to the outbreak of the pandemic at FDH dormitories, similar infections have occurred time and again. As the authorities have not learnt the lesson from previous loopholes, it is unlikely for them not to repeat the same mistake.
The number of FDHs in Hong Kong is large, once reaching 400,000 in the middle of last year. After the pandemic broke out this year, the number of FDHs fell, but by the middle of the year there were still more than 360,000. Many families hire FDHs to take care of the elderly and infirm as well as infants, and the biggest concern of employers is that a cluster of infected FDHs will bring the virus home. Recently, an FDH was diagnosed after falling ill for half a month, and virus tests confirmed that all four members of the employer's family were infected, including an infant who is six months old. For a family that employs an FDH, such things are a nightmare.
The fight against the pandemic is like a war. It must be done quickly, decisively and accurately. Yesterday (December 16), the government announced that in view of the recent emergence of a cluster of FDH infections, the authorities will provide one-time free testing for all FDHs in Hong Kong. The scheme officially starts this Friday (today). Such a practice will always be helpful in identifying more infected people, but it is debatable whether it will be accurate and effective in treating the symptoms at root. The authorities have not classified FDHs as a specific group for mandatory testing, and participation is purely voluntary. Even if an employer ''eagerly requests'' an FDH to do so, the FDH does not necessarily have to comply. For many FDHs, COVID-19 is scary, but losing their jobs is even worse. If the test result is positive, not only do they have to be isolated for treatment, but they also wonder if they will be fired.
The Labour Department arranged for FDHs living in employment agencies to be tested in August. In recent months, it has also provided three rounds of free testing for FDHs who had their contracts terminated and who were waiting to start working. A cumulative total of more than 8,600 FDHs have been tested. However, if the authorities do not strengthen supervision and close the loopholes, simply doing more testing is just window dressing. For many years, there has been no legislation to regulate FDH dormitories, which are only regulated by different ordinances. As a result, there are many ''grey areas''. The Labour Department has not set out guidelines for FDH dormitories, only saying that it would seriously follow up on non-compliance issues. The public inevitably has to question how ''serious'' the authorities' follow-up actions will be.