Foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong

Employer retrieves domestic helper’s passport from agency, calls for government crackdown on illegal fees

Case illustrates common situation where documents such as passports and contracts are withheld to compel helpers to pay excessive amounts to agencies

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 November, 2016, 2:54pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 November, 2016, 10:58pm

An Australian man living in Hong Kong was planning a trip to Japan when he encountered an unexpected problem. His family wanted to take their helper with them, but there was something missing: her passport.

What Mr Smith – who prefers not to reveal his real name due to safety concerns – did not know at the time was that the helper had been forced to sign a contract in which she agreed that her agency would keep her passport until she paid them HK$5,000.

She had three months do so – if she took more time, the agency would start charging interest.

Smith, 38, who approached the agent and managed to recover his helper’s passport as well as the money she had already paid, is now calling on the government to offer better protection to helpers and to crack down on agencies that charge illegal fees.

Illegal fees, little rest and no documents: domestic helpers in Hong Kong continue to fight for their rights

“I know that my helper is not the only one in this situation ... I saw a box full of passports when I went there and insisted on recovering her documents,” Smith said.

“The system needs reform ... It’s so unfair that vulnerable people – like domestic helpers – are being taken advantage of.”

Smith’s helper, who is from the Philippines, said that after she got her documents and money back, she started receiving calls from the agency.

“They were very angry at me, asking me why I had spoken to my employer,” she recalled.

Her story illustrates a point highlighted in a report released last month: “Indebtedness due to excessive agency fees is a pivotal issue in terms of explaining why migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong remain vulnerable to human and labour rights abuses.”

The study, titled “Between a Rock and a Hard Place”, noted that domestic helpers were charged illegal fees in the Philippines, and when they arrived in the city they had to pay an average of HK$11,320 in further fees to placement agencies – the equivalent of more than 25 times the legally permitted maximum charge.

Of the 67 interviewees in the study, about a third had had their passport and/or employment contract confiscated by their placement agency or employer in Hong Kong, the investigation showed. The report was a collaborative effort by several unions and human rights organisations.

‘Cursory’ contracts leave Hong Kong’s foreign domestic helpers open to abuse

Dolores Balladares, spokeswoman for the Asian Migrants Coordinating Body, noted that the passport should be held by the employee and not by agencies or employers.

Smith said that his family had considered making a police report.

“But we were concerned about the safety of our children ... We don’t know whether the agency is connected to some sort of organised crime,” he said.

“Also, we felt that would not have much impact ... The fines agencies have to pay are quite low, and the Employment Agencies Administration seems to be a bit toothless.”

The Labour Department conducted 5,233 inspections between January 2014 and September this year. Only 13 agencies had their licences revoked, while 23 were fined between HK$1,500 and HK$45,000.

In an earlier response to the Post, a spokesman for the department said that a code of conduct for agencies would soon be introduced. The code, he noted, would “specify that employment agencies should not keep any personal property, including identification documents of foreign domestic helpers (e.g. passports), or they may be held liable for an offence”.

Critics have, however, expressed doubt over the effectiveness of the document in cracking down on malpractice by agencies and better protecting the 345,000 foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong.

“I am from a country where to have a helper is not common at all ... so we do appreciate the contribution that she makes to our family ... They should be given the chance to spend their money the way they find fit, instead of being forced to pay illegal fees,” Smith said.