If the code of practice to protect domestic helpers fails, legislation must follow
Far too many maids in Hong Kong are being exploited by unscrupulous agencies, both here and overseas
There is no question the city’s 340,000 domestic helpers are not only important to its economy but also vulnerable to exploitation. One of the most common examples of abuse has long been overcharging of helpers by the agencies that place them in employment, leaving them to pay off crippling debt from modest salaries. Only now, more than three decades after maids began flocking here, has the government moved to introduce a code of practice to protect domestic helpers – and employers who depend on them – from such exploitative malpractice.
The Labour Department has issued for a public consultation a draft code that sets out a list of standards the agencies must meet. While not legally binding, the code would grant the labour commissioner power under the Employment Ordinance to revoke an agency’s licence if its operators are considered unfit to conduct their business through failure to adhere to the standards.
If the code proves ineffective, Secretary for Labour and Welfare Matthew Cheung Kin-chung says he has not ruled out legislation to make it mandatory within two years. To sharpen the code’s teeth, he should make that a promise.
Under the code, agencies must draw up separate service agreements with helpers and employers that clearly list service terms and fees, and brief maids on their labour rights. This follows a record number of complaints against recruitment agencies that prompted the department to step up inspections, resulting in a threefold increase in the number successfully prosecuted last year from four to 12 – nine of them for overcharging. The Asian Migrants Coordinating body says overcharging on the scale of HK$6,000 to HK$15,000 remains common. That said, there seems room for the law to allow agencies to charge more than 10 per cent of the helper’s first monthly salary. Democratic Party lawmaker Sin Cheung-kai says overseas partners of local agencies are to blame for many cases of overcharging. The consultation should address the question of how to prevent the code being undermined.