(Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Hong Kong authorities have rowed back on plans to make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory for foreign domestic workers, after human rights groups slammed the policy as being discriminatory.
After a domestic worker from the Philippines was found to have a more contagious variant of the coronavirus last week, authorities said all 370,000 foreign domestic workers in the city would have to get tested before May 9.
Domestic workers would also need to get vaccinated before renewing their employment contracts, authorities said.
But Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam on Tuesday said the vaccine policy was being suspended after a backlash from workers' groups who said they were being unfairly singled out, and a Philippine government official criticised the move.
"I have asked the secretary for labour to review the whole policy, and to consult advisers and consulates for the countries where domestic workers primarily come from as to whether compulsory vaccinations can be done," Lam told reporters.
The policy was not discriminatory, and the government still planned to complete mandatory testing of all domestic workers by May 9, she added.
Female domestic workers - largely from the Philippines, Indonesia, Nepal and Sri Lanka - usually live with their employers in Hong Kong.
During lockdowns to control the spread of the coronavirus, they were kept away from their usual social gatherings with friends on their one day off each week.
After the order on mandatory testing, domestic workers had queued for hours on Sunday - their usual day off - to get tested, said Dolores Balladares, chairperson of United Filipinos in Hong Kong, a workers' rights group.
"We welcome the suspension of mandatory vaccines, but we are calling for scrapping the mandatory testing and vaccine policy entirely, as it punishes and criminalises domestic workers," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"We are in favour of testing and vaccination on a voluntary basis. But singling us out and making it mandatory is discriminatory and leads to further stigmatisation," she said, noting that previous COVID-19 clusters in gyms and dance studios did not lead to similar actions.
The decision to get all domestic workers tested was made because the strain was highly transmissible, and the worker had met with other domestic workers before testing positive, Sophia Chan, the financial hub's health secretary told reporters.
"Therefore, for prudence's sake, we think we should test all the foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong," Chan said.
Many Hong Kong residents have been hesitant about getting a vaccine since the roll out began in February, with overall figures far below satisfactory, Lam previously said.
While Hong Kong's provision of free vaccines for all domestic workers was admirable, singling them out for testing "smacks of discrimination," Philippines' foreign affairs secretary, Teddy Locsin Jr, wrote on Twitter.
"If it is a special favour, it is unfair to other nationalities. HK can do better than that," he tweeted.
Domestic workers have been blamed for coronavirus outbreaks elsewhere in the region, as well, with a surge of cases in foreign-worker dormitories in Singapore drawing attention to their squalid living conditions.
"We understand that testing and vaccination are for the health of the worker, the employer and the community," said Balladares.
"But we've been subject to exclusion and discrimination throughout the pandemic, and unfairly blamed for the outbreak."