Hong Kong is committed to protecting foreign domestic helpers’ labour rights and safety
Matthew Cheung says the Hong Kong government has taken very seriously the allegations of overseas job fraud affecting Filipino helpers. Legal and personal safeguards for all foreign domestic workers are a priority
The government is highly concerned about recent reports, quoting information released by the Philippines, alleging that thousands of Filipino domestic helpers in Hong Kong were lured to bogus overseas jobs by local employment agencies. The alleged fraudulent activities on such a large scale have never been brought to the government’s attention at regular liaison meetings with the Philippine Consulate General. Nevertheless, we have taken this allegation extremely seriously and are investigating the matter.
According to the consulate, the recent suspension of Overseas Employment Certificate issuances by the Philippine government arose from its internal investigation against illegal recruitment activities globally. The suspension applies worldwide and is not targeted at Hong Kong. The government of Hong Kong has requested the Philippine government to consider exempting the city from the suspension order.
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To help families affected by the suspension, we have introduced an exceptional arrangement to allow them to extend the employment period of their existing helpers up to February 28, 2018, while they wait for newly employed helpers to report. Those who have special needs for elderly and child care services may approach the Social Welfare Department for help.
Domestic helpers and the Hong Kong family
I must emphasise that foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong are offered full protection, on a par with local workers. The government-prescribed Standard Employment Contract used by employers for hiring helpers provides further benefits not usually available to local workers. Helpers also have full access to the services and assistance that the government offers to the local workforce, including legal aid.
The government has also stepped up the regulation of employment agencies in recent years. The Labour Department has increased its manpower to inspect agencies more frequently; issued a Code of Practice for them earlier this year; and introduced an amendment bill in the Legislative Council in June to expand the scope of the overcharging offence, to impose substantially heavier penalties for overcharging and unlicensed operation, and to give the Code of Practice legal teeth. Those convicted are liable to a maximum of three years’ imprisonment and a fine of HK$350,000.
While it is not unlawful for employment agencies to provide job-placement services for local and migrant workers seeking to take up genuine employment overseas, our laws do not allow them to charge jobseekers commission that is more than 10 per cent of their first month’s wages. Nor should agencies provide any false or misleading information to jobseekers.
In the past five years, the Labour Department has prosecuted five employment agencies involved in charging exorbitant fees for overseas placement, and revoked or refused to renew the licences of four. The police also take prompt enforcement action against any suspected fraud. The Labour Department has also set up a dedicated task force to step up surveillance and handle cases of suspicious overseas placements. We will continue to step up publicity and education to prevent helpers from falling victim to overseas recruitment fraud. A new leaflet has been introduced to remind them of job traps. We encourage foreign domestic helpers who suspect they have fallen prey to bogus overseas job offers to report it to the government.
I would also like to remind employers not to bring their helpers to work anywhere outside Hong Kong, including the mainland. Employers who do so are in breach of their undertakings in the Standard Employment Contract and visa application form. This may be deemed as making a false representation to the immigration officer. If convicted, they face a maximum fine of HK$150,000 and 14 years in prison. Their future applications for hiring helpers may also be refused.
Hong Kong prides itself on being a favoured place of work for domestic helpers, and their numbers have reached an all-time high of over 360,000. Given our ageing population, the demand for domestic support will only increase. Helpers now make up a significant 9 per cent of our workforce and contribute to our socio-economic development. We should and will ensure the full protection of their labour rights and safety.
Matthew Cheung Kin-chung is chief secretary of the Hong Kong SAR