Foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong

Hong Kong employment agencies risk losing their licence if they don’t follow new code of practice

Long-awaited code of practice, which is not legally binding, still criticised as ‘toothless’ even as government promises enforcement

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 January, 2017, 11:05pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 January, 2017, 9:00am

The city’s employment agencies face losing their licence if they break a new code of practice released by the government on Friday.

But unions were sceptical that the code would have any effect unless it was legally binding and strengthened by updated labour laws.

The Labour Department produced the long-awaited voluntary code after receiving hundreds of complaints from jobseekers and domestic helpers about the agencies.

The code lists established legal requirements as well as “minimum standards” which the commissioner for labour expects agencies to meet. These standards include transparency in business operations, drawing up service agreements with jobseekers and employers, and providing payment receipts.

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“The ultimate objective is to improve the service quality as well as the professional level of the employment agencies,” assistant commissioner for labour Queenie Wong Ting-chi said.

Critics decried the new code as a “toothless tiger” during the consultation period, because it was not legally binding. Labour Party legislator Dr Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung echoed that sentiment, saying: “I don’t think the code of practice could actually improve the current situation.”

The Federation of Asian Domestic Workers Union said the code was “better than nothing”, but said monitoring agencies would be ineffective without updated labour policies and laws.

The department said it would act on any cases of agencies breaching the code.

“Our department will closely monitor employment agencies’ compliance with the code of practice,” Mabel Li Po-yi, deputy commissioner for labour, said, adding that there would be regular inspections.

Agencies may get warning letters, be fined, lose their licence, or have a licence renewal rejected.

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Technic Employment Service Centre, one of the city’s biggest agencies, welcomed the code.

“It is a good thing for the industry. It urges people to follow the rules,” managing director Teresa Liu Tsui-lan said. “It means we might need to do further explanation to employers and write more detailed terms in the contract. We are fine with that.”

Overcharging of fees was the most common complaint against agencies by domestic helpers. The code states that agencies shall not charge fees of more than 10 per cent of the first month’s wages.

The department said it got about 200 complaints per year. It said it increased inspections of agencies from 1,300 in 2014 to 1,800 in 2016.

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But Cheung said checks were not frequent enough for the department to discover misconduct and report it to police. He urged the department to hire more inspectors and to make the code legally binding.

Last year four agencies had their licences revoked for overcharging. Conviction rates have also increased, from four in 2014 to 12 in 2015, and eight in 2016. The majority of convictions were for overcharging on fees.

In November, an employer had to retrieve his helper’s passport from an employment agency which was withholding it until the helper paid the agency HK$5,000.

Additional reporting by Nikki Sun and Elizabeth Cheung