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Foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong

Safety must come first for all those doing domestic chores

Cases of accidents when cleaning external windows highlight the need for proper precautions

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 October, 2016, 2:13am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 October, 2016, 2:13am

When a household chore as simple as window cleaning makes news for the wrong reasons, when accidents involving domestic helpers doing such duties leads to foreign government intervention, there is perhaps room for reflection. To those who have been doing the routine without problem, regulation may seem superfluous. But with a handful of fatal accidents this year already, the occupational safety of domestic helpers warrants wider attention.

It almost seems to be stating the obvious that one should avoid leaning out of the window or standing on an unstable base when cleaning the outside of windows. The tips have been spelled out by the government in information notes for employers and helpers. But for many who are unfamiliar with the city’s high-rise environment, what should be common sense may be a challenge. In January, an Indonesian helper fell to her death while cleaning windows, just days after arriving in Hong Kong. Indeed, locals doing the shame chore are equally vulnerable. A middle-aged man fell to his death while apparently cleaning the windows of his Yuen Long flat last month.

Philippines to bring in ban on Hong Kong domestic helpers cleaning windows

It goes without saying that employers have a duty to provide a safe working environment, and that no worker should be forced to do dangerous tasks without safety precautions. But in the case of domestic helpers, unless the duties assigned are in breach of the law or expressly excluded from the contract, they are often in a difficult position to say no.

Controversial as it is, the unilateral move by the Philippine consulate to ban cleaning external windows in contracts for new domestic helpers is in good faith. The Indonesian consulate is also considering similar contractual safeguards for its workers. Although the step may create disputes and is not in line with Hong Kong’s consensual approach in resolving labour issues, it reflects the concerns of governments for their nationals. The safety of those doing the chore must be properly addressed.