Domestic workers in Hong Kong need protection from rogue agencies

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 May, 2017, 5:02pm
UPDATED : Monday, 29 May, 2017, 11:21pm

We were heartened to read your editorial (“Fixing the causes of helper exploitation”, May 22).

HELP for Domestic Workers has assisted foreign domestic workers for nearly 30 years to obtain redress for mistreatment by agencies or employers. As you say, only some employers mistreat employees, but everyone who is mistreated is a real person who experiences real trauma and distress.

Exploitation by employment agencies and inadequate accommodation are two common problems domestic workers raise to HELP. These problems are exacerbated by the “two- week rule”, restricting domestic workers’ ability to pursue their rights when they are violated.

We are currently dealing with exploitative agencies, including one targeting a group of domestic workers who have been charged extortionate fees by the only agency accredited to recruit them from their country. Each month for the first eight months of their two-year contract, over 70 per cent of their wages are deducted and paid by their employers to the agency, or to a lending company used as a conduit to collect fees, disguised as personal loans.

Very few rogue agencies are penalised. Under the statute of limitation, prosecution must occur within six months of the offence. Even when penalised, the fine imposed is often negligible as a deterrent.

The maximum fine for predatory agencies must be increased and the statute of limitations extended to one year. Hong Kong needs to take the lead on regulations that are founded in human rights, acknowledging the shortcomings we have in child and elder care solutions.

On inadequate accommodation, this leads to workers’ vulnerability through insufficient rest, and sometimes sexual abuse and harassment. Plans for new developments show “maids rooms” that are too small for a standard single bed. Allowing domestic workers to live outside the home, or giving them and employers choice on accommodation would alleviate these tensions.

Our clients say, “I don’t want trouble, I just want to support my family.” Desperation creates a vicious cycle that leaves many domestic workers bound by debt or worse. Hong Kong must address the root causes of exploitation and amend regulations in line with international standards so we may truly call Hong Kong “Asia’s world city”.

Let’s review the term used in your editorial, “helper”. Domestic work is work like any other, and our words matter.

Rebecca Roth-Biester, on behalf of the Board of HELP for Domestic Workers