Fog of SARS

Much has been made in the press about the adverse macroeconomic effects of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), as it affects “market confidence”, “projected GDP growth” and the like.

Indeed, it was recently reported that some entity known as ‘Hong Kong’ is to lose over US$1 billion as a result of the outbreak.

Not much has been written, however, about the fact that some people in ‘Hong Kong’ will disproportionately bear the economic brunt of SARS and the hysteria surrounding it. Working people, and migrant workers in particular, continue to suffer from the costs of the disease, from the fear and paranoia shown by employers, and from government measures passed in the fog of SARS.

The price of recommended prevention and treatment, for example, is often a difficult one for the average working person to bear. Several means of prevention, including facemasks, vitamins, properly balanced meals and exercise, have featured prominently in government addresses and advertisements. But families already living on a subsistence income have found it near impossible to pay for the added costs, in time and money, of SARS prevention.

Also, disease containment measures taken by many employers and the government have put the livelihood of working people in danger, with little or no real employee or public consultation (or compensation). These measures have included shortening of the work week, closures of some commercial buildings, ‘encouragement’ from employers to take unpaid leave, and even quarantine in extreme cases. Most people in Hong Kong, already hurt by the economic recession, cannot seriously consider the option of taking time off from work or flying abroad while the epidemic continues- though such choices have already been exercised by the more privileged members of society.

In terms of control exerted by employers, however, this is generally more prevalent in the lives of Hong Kong’s Foreign Domestic Helpers (FDHs). Most of these migrant workers– generally women from the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, and South Asia- are live-in workers, meaning they both live and work in their employers’ homes. Living in one’s place of employment usually entails a greater dependence on the employer for workers, but this is particularly true for FDHs, whose place of employment is in the private sphere of the home. Employers therefore enjoy greater liberties, in restricting workers’ movement and activities, for example. Unfair contractual arrangements also often aggravate the power of employers and employment agencies over the lives of individual FDHs.

In the wake of SARS, many FDHs have been forced by their employers to stay at home during their usual breaks on Sundays and pubilc holidays, due to many employers’ paranoia over their catching and spreading the disease to the home. The Asian Migrants’ Coordinating Body (AMCB), an umbrella organisation of migrants’ rights groups in Hong Kong, calls these movement restrictions “blatant discrimination being used by many employers to deprive us of our rights.” (1) According to migrant workers’ organisations, there are only 20 or so cases of SARS among FDHs, out of a total of around 1,600 cases in Hong Kong.

On a personal level, these restrictions have meant that the very real sense of isolation and alienation, already suffered by many FDHs living with their employers, has been extended beyond the work week. “This terrible disease means not mere death, but more: it means being lonely and alienated,” say Wahyu Nanik Paurwandari and Eko Indriyanti of the Indonesian Migrant Workers’ Union (IMWU). (2)

Understandably, organising efforts by migrants’ groups and unions have also been hurt as a result of this. Attendance at the recent May Day rally held by the Coalition for Migrants’ Rights, for example, was much lower than usual, severely hit by the restrictions placed on FDHs by employers.

For those FDHs who have actually been infected with SARS, the situation is even worse. Sri Widiati, from East Java in Indonesia, is one of these. Sri finally managed to recover after fighting for her life in hospital, but awoke to find that her contract had been cancelled by her employer, with SARS cited as the reason for termination. The Indonesian Consulate in Hong Kong has stayed silent on the issue, and with no one else to turn to for help, Sri is said to have given up her appeal. She is instead waiting to return to an uncertain future in Indonesia. Her case is being highlighted by the IMWU as an example of how SARS has been used by employers to curtail the rights of FDHs and other migrant workers, treating them as “commodities” rather than human beings.

An additional problem for FDHs from the Philippines has come with the discovery of SARS in that country. Not only are Filipino FDHs being discouraged by their own government from visiting their families and friends, but the financial needs of many of their families have increased, due to increasingly privatised, costly health care in the Philippines. Money sent home by FDHs abroad is an important supplement to many families’ incomes, and an extra amount now has to be sent back by many of them.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the US$1.5 billion SARS “relief” package offered by Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa has focused on cutting operating costs for economic elites rather than compensating or reducing the significant pressures on working people. The package is aimed at bailing-out such SARS-hit industries as tourism, entertainment, and retail sales. It is comprised primarily of rebates on taxes and licensing fees for these sectors, as well as the waiving of certain other charges, such as water.

“The government short-term policy may be just to give these enterprises a relief,” David Chen, senior economist Dao Heng Bank, correctly observed. (3) In the guise of reform, the measures benefit businesses instead of directly assisting the ordinary people suffering from the impact of SARS.

But not only does such “relief” not help working people, it may actually end up hurting them. The AMCB importantly notes that the measures are ‘reformist’ reforms aimed at ensuring workers’ “complacency with regards to [previous] belt-tightening measures it has imposed especially among the poor and disadvantaged sectors.” (1)

Such “complacency” can also be achieved through the public relations boost given to political and economic elites, through their statements and propaganda hailing them as strong “community leaders” in a time of ‘national emergency.’ This would seem particularly important given that Tung Chee Hwa’s administration has faced criticism from many sectors over its handling of SARS.

Statements from government officials have often employed military vocuabulary, likening the SARS outbreak to a time of war. For example, James Tien, perhaps paraphrasing George W. Bush, described the situation as “a war against an unseen enemy, and one we must not lose” in a guest column in the South China Morning Post. Such a public relations makeover was probably an excellent opportunity for Tien to shed his better known image as an “enemy of the poor”- dubbed so by migrant workers’ groups because of his co-championing of an odious, racist levy and wage cut proposal. (4)

The recent Operation Unite, a symbolic, media-friendly ‘clean up’ of Hong Kong sponsored by several large corporations, was another excellent opportunity for politicians and bureaucrats to be filmed and photographed on the ‘frontlines’ of this ‘new war.’ Among those featured was Regina Ip, Hong Kong’s Secretary for Security, who has been the prime pusher of ‘Article 23’, a fundamentally anti-democratic piece of ‘national security’ legislation (5). Though the success of such propaganda campaigns is not guaranteed– and polls show that most people have remained sceptical of figures like Tung Chee Hwa and Regina Ip- their implications are both alarming and dismaying.

It’s not that people shouldn’t be afraid of this disease. It has already taken the lives of around 170 people in Hong Kong, and most everyone is trying hard to act responsibly and reduce their risk of infection. But something people should also be afraid of is the use of such an ’emergency’ situation by those with power, to curtail people’ existing rights, to slash away at the gains made by social movements over the years, and to demolish the foundations of future organising efforts.

(1). AMCB International Labour Day Statement, May 1 2003. Contact <> for more information

(2). ‘Migrant Workers and SARS…’, IMWU. 1 May 2003.

(3). Channel News Asia, ‘HK Financial Secretary says SARS relief measures may help reduce budget deficit.’ April 25, 2003.

(4). See ZNet ‘Demonstrations in Hong Kong’. Dec 17, 2002:

(5). see ZNet, ‘Article 23’, October 21, 2002:

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