Treatment of local inmates making masks inhumane

February 17, 2020 17:32
Customers look at protective masks on sale at a local pharmacy on Feb. 4. Local inmates have been tapped to produce more masks for the city amid the novel coronavirus outbreak. Photo: Bloomberg

Recently, my Legislative Council office was tipped off by a female inmate of a local correctional facility about the inhumane arrangements for inmates producing surgical masks for the Correctional Services Industries (CSI).

She said that since Jan. 5, the unit charged with producing face masks has been working around the clock in a bid to boost output.

Inmates from other CSI units have also been deployed to the mask production line to increase manpower. They are also required to work extra and overnight shifts.

Under normal circumstances, inmates should be off-duty at 5 p.m. But under the new work schedule, they have to put in three more hours of work after dinner. For those assigned to the overnight shift, they are asked to work until 6 a.m.

On the surface, overnight shifts are on a voluntary basis. But the reality, according to our informant, is that correctional staff often pick timid inmates who dare not say “no” to “volunteer” for the night shift.

Earlier this month, the Correctional Services Department (CSD) replied to an inquiry made by a news outlet, saying that at the request of the Government Logistics Department, the CSI is now stepping up output of masks by enforcing a 24-hour three-shift work schedule, with inmates working in each shift being given enough time to rest.

Inmates can volunteer for the night shift based on their own wishes. And volunteers who have found themselves unable to adapt to night shift work can always raise their issues with correctional staff, who will make suitable arrangements accordingly.

This isn't the first time that the CSD was pulling bureaucratic cliche, which, on this occasion, has “provoked” a rebuttal from another female inmate, who told us that the CSD wasn’t telling the truth.

She said even if an inmate is working overnight shifts, all she can make is around HK$300 to HK$400 a month, or HK$1.5 to HK$2 per hour. Given such low pay levels, how could anyone be motivated to volunteer for the night shift?

Worse still, those who are picked by correctional staff for working overnight shifts are often middle-aged female inmates above the age of 40, or even older ones aged over 60, who are faint-hearted and who dare not disobey orders.

This informant then went on to tell us that those who refused to work overtime, are often punished by getting isolated from others during meal time and forced to eat alone.

And what comes next is that they may be “reminded” by correctional staff that they will be reassigned to other more exhausting duties such as cleaning or kitchen work, or even sent to a special unit, called Shui Fan Fong, a facility used for separate confinement, if they remain defiant and continue to refuse to do overtime work.

In most cases, inmates who got intimidated for not cooperating would eventually capitulate, although they didn’t want to.

(On a Feb. 15 post on his Facebook page, Shiu Ka-chun gave further information regarding CSI's efforts to raise the output of masks. The CSD now provides one-hour rest time and snacks for those on an overnight shift. It has set the working hours for the three shifts, and has improved the salary of those taking the overnight shift to around HK$800 per month.)

Meanwhile, ethnic-minority inmates such as Indonesians, Bangladeshis and Filipinos, as well as mainland inmates who came from rural areas, are also usually made to work overnight shifts.

However, in an apparent bid to avoid diplomatic tensions, correctional staff would rarely require inmates of African descent to either work overtime or do the overnight shift, not least because African consulate generals in Hong Kong are often more vocal about the rights of their incarcerated nationals, the informant added.

I believe the people of Hong Kong will be deeply grateful to these inmates for their hard work to produce more masks for our city amid the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Nonetheless, I have to point out that the initiative to ask inmates to work overtime to make face masks must be carried out entirely on a voluntary basis, which, in my view, is the most basic prerequisite.

I also believe it would be more ideal for the CSD to make the amount of pay commensurate with the amount of work, such as providing double pay, so as to boost the incentives for inmates to volunteer for the night shift.

My other suggestion is that the CSD should consider paying inmates the statutory minimum wage (i.e., HK$37.5) for every extra hour they work beyond the required working hours each day.

And finally, I feel compelled to reiterate that female inmates will absolutely be doing nothing wrong if they refuse to work overtime because it is supposed to be the SAR government’s responsibility, not theirs, to guarantee ample supply of masks for residents.

We have no choice but scramble for the masks from many places just because our government has proven too incompetent.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 11

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Legislative Council member