The government has reiterated its appeal for foreign domestic workers to stay at home on their rest days instead of gathering in groups, prompting warnings that some employers are abusing such arrangements to get free labour from their helpers.
"Avoid going out for social activities on rest days such as meal gatherings, and maintain an appropriate social distance with other people as far as possible," the Labour Department said on Friday, echoing a similar appeal it had made at the end of January.
"Foreign domestic helpers may consider discussing rest day arrangements with their employers, including substituting another rest day, so as to avoid the health risk of gathering in crowded places," a statement said.
It noted that the Philippines' consulate had also appealed to migrant workers in Hong Kong not to go out on their days off if possible, now that at least 16 Filipinos in the city have come down with Covid-19.
The department also reiterated that any employer who forces their helper to work on what is supposed to be their rest day is liable to prosecution and could face a maximum fine of HK$50,000.
But Eman Villanueva, from the Asian Migrants' Coordinating Body, said some employers are already making use of the coronavirus crisis to force helpers to work more.
He said a survey the group conducted recently involving some 1,200 helpers found that 25 percent of them who had heeded the advice to stay in on their rest days were made to work, while 20 percent were not even given the weekly day off they are entitled to under the law.
"That 'home' that the government is referring to is actually our place of work. And so telling migrant workers to stay at home is actually telling migrant workers to stay at work. That is the dilemma that we have. It's a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation," Villanueva said.
"If you go out, the government and even some members of the community will say you will bring the virus when you come back home. But if you stay at home, you are forced to work, you cannot rest and you don't have your own space. So what will the migrant workers do in this situation?"
Villanueva said foreign domestic workers are also doing their bit to help prevent the spread of the virus, by avoiding large gatherings on their days off.
He said some groups of helpers can still be seen on the streets of Central on Sundays from time to time, and his organisation has been reminding people to observe social distancing.