After a record number of complaints against recruitment agencies for domestic helpers last year, let alone anecdotal evidence of overcharging and disregard for maids' rights and welfare, it is a worry that the Labour Department denied licence renewals to only four out of 1,250-odd during the period. Clearly the government needs to make the industry more accountable. So it is good to hear Labour and Welfare Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung say that his bureau will work with the Department of Justice to overhaul the regulatory system for helpers and increase punishments for unscrupulous employment agencies.
This is necessary and overdue, despite a suggestion by a spokesperson for the General Chamber of Manpower Agencies that the way forward is to form a self-regulatory body similar to the Travel Industry Council. This is a body of industry insiders whose failure to put their house in order was instrumental in a series of scandals involving the mistreatment of mainland tour groups, prompting the government to propose a statutory authority to operate as an independent watchdog over the industry and Hong Kong's reputation as a tourist destination.
Oversight of the domestic helper recruitment industry is no less deserving of a serious shake-up along similar lines. For too long too many of them have got away with exploiting maids from impoverished backgrounds who work long hours for the smallest rewards.
The expression of shock at the licensing figures by the general secretary of the International Domestic Workers Federation, Elizabeth Tang Yin-ngor, is understandable. The Asian Migrants' Co-ordinating Body says that for Filipino helpers alone, a record of about 8,000 complaints related to overcharging were filed with their consulate last year. This does not reflect well on Hong Kong. If the government is to compel maids to live in a master-servant relationship with their employers, it has a responsibility to maintain a regulatory regime that upholds fairness and respect for human rights.