Plans to support Hong Kong’s domestic helpers are long overdue
It is good to hear the government is developing a code of practice for the employment industry which will spell out workers’ rights.
The fact that Hongkongers employ more than 340,000 foreign domestic helpers testifies to their importance to the city’s economy. This is not reflected in helpers’ very weak bargaining power, which means the government is responsible for ensuring compliance with rules to protect them from exploitation.
One of the most common and egregious examples of abuse is overcharging of helpers by the agencies that place them in employment. A record number of complaints against recruitment agencies in 2013 prompted the Labour Department to step up inspections from the middle of last year, from 1,300 a year to 1,800. The result is a threefold increase in the number of agencies successfully prosecuted, from four last year to 12 this year – nine of them for overcharging. The government is to be commended for stepping up surveillance, although even 1,800 checks may be a limited deterrent, given that the Asian Migrants Coordinating Body says that Filipino helpers filed more than 8,000 overcharging complaints with their consulate last year.
Under the law, agencies can only charge helpers 10 per cent of their first month’s salary as a placement fee, or about HK$420. However, Eri Lestari of the coordinating body, says overcharging on the scale of HK$6,000 to HK$15,000 remains very common. It is good to hear therefore that the department is developing a code of practice for the industry which, according to Secretary for Labour and Welfare Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, will spell out workers’ rights. The department plans to consult interested parties, including helpers’ unions, when the draft code is ready, probably early next year. Such guidelines are long overdue.
Democratic Party chairwoman Emily Lau Wai-hing has a point when she says the government needs to work with Manila and Jakarta to educate helpers in their rights before they come to Hong Kong. That said, the government and organisations representing helpers and their employers should consider whether the existing placement fee fairly reflects value. An unrealistically low fee only encourages contempt for the law.