Coronavirus: give street cleaners surgical masks or risk them walking off the job, HK warned

08-Feb-2020 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:02 AM Print This Post

Tens of thousands of street cleaners and sanitation workers in Hong Kong will run out of protective face masks in two weeks and will have to stop working, their employers have said, warning piles of rubbish could be left in the streets amid the deadly coronavirus outbreak.

Critics and campaigners accused officials of passing the buck and said they had a responsibility to ensure adequate protection for the cleaners, who work for government contractors.

Hong Kong is battling a novel strain of coronavirus that originated in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, Hubei province. The flu-like virus contracted by 28,300 people worldwide has infected 24 people in the city, killing one.

Officials and health experts have advised residents to wear surgical masks when out and about, but Hongkongers have struggled to buy the face coverings, as well as disinfectant and other hygiene products, amid shortages and soaring prices.

On Thursday, the Environmental Services Contractors Alliance, a group that represents about 80 per cent of cleaning companies in the city, released a survey that polled more than 30 firms in the sector between January 31 and February 4, and revealed the industry only had enough masks to last about two weeks.

Group convenor Catherine Yan Sui-han said one company that employed about 4,000 people had already stopped giving masks to its workers, adding that 5 million masks were urgently needed, an amount that would last about 14 days.

“We don’t want to go on strike, but we may be forced out of work because some employees will not work without a mask,” she said.

“We have never had a word of complaint about our work, even during the worst days of [2003's] Sars outbreak, when we did a large amount of disinfecting work. But I fear this crisis is of a magnitude the likes of which we have not seen before.”

Yan called on the government to provide masks, in particular to the about 40,000 cleaners hired by government contractors, by dipping into stocks of those made by inmates at prison factories if necessary.

She said the government had ignored her plea. The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department said it was in regular contact with contractors on the issue of mask supplies.

The group’s remarks were echoed by local activists and politicians. Wu Mei-lin, executive director of the Hong Kong Women Workers’ Association, a group that represents low-income workers, said some cleaners she contacted were forced to reuse the same mask for days on end, and some even resorted to cleaning old masks in the washing machine.

“Some companies have long exploited street cleaners and janitors by not providing them enough protective gear like masks and gloves, breaching contract terms,” Wu said. “This should be a wake-up call for them as low-income workers should not have to choose between their health and their work.”

Siu Sin-man, from the Association for the Rights of Industrial Accident Victims, said workers who had contracted the coronavirus due to not having a mask on during work could in theory sue the company for compensation, but proving the causal link would be difficult.

“Companies and insurance firms would challenge workers on the place of infection, and avoid paying out large sums. The government is leaving poorer workers vulnerable to health and financial ruin.”

Labour Party chair Steven Kwok Wing-kin called for an end to the privatisation of public services, and said the government should not throw under the bus the people who kept the streets clean.

“The subcontracting system is rotten to its core and past its use-by date. The government has long abdicated its responsibility, such as for providing civil servant benefits like severance pay and annual leave days to the people who actually work for the public sector,” he said.

“The government must not contract its responsibility to provide masks to workers out to private firms, and must get rid of the privatisation system once and for all.”

In a statement on Thursday, the government said it was exercising “maximum flexibility to… actively [contact] suppliers in different countries to procure the masks and necessary protective items globally”, after it was embroiled in a social media storm over an alleged bureaucratic tendering process.

The police force said it had received 109 complaints of online scams by people claiming to sell masks, with the loss of at least HK$580,000 (US$75,000) in total. It had arrested six men and two women.


Category: Hong Kong

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