Complaints about agencies providing domestic helpers are on the increase, with employers feeling cheated when new staff never arrive, quit within days of starting or lack the necessary skills.
The Consumer Council received 260 complaints about agencies last year, a 21 per cent increase on the 2010 total of 214. The city has 290,000 domestic helpers, the vast majority of them from the Philippines or Indonesia. Agencies typically match helpers to employers, organise visas and make travel arrangements.
The consumer watchdog urged employers to take care when drafting contracts with agencies to avoid conflicts, but said it would be difficult to formally regulate the agencies.
In once case, a mother of two thought she was getting a maid with childcare experience, only to discover that the woman's experience was in looking after elderly people. The maid had claimed to have looked after children for four years, but the employer soon learnt that she did not even know how to hold a baby, and on one occasion she mixed raw eggs into the children's food.
The maid also had a disability affecting her fingers, meaning she struggled to hold a milk bottle, scoop up milk powder or even tie the children's shoelaces.
Chan dismissed the helper and complained to the Consumer Council, which asked the agency to compensate her for the cost of the maid's salary, insurance, medical check-ups and air tickets.
In another case, a maid quit after one day, but did not return to her home country, even though her boss had paid for an air ticket home. When she bumped into the maid at a ferry terminal two months later and asked her what had happened, she ran away. The agency later told the employer the maid had found a new job in the city.
The employer suspected the maid and the agency had conspired to cheat her out of the HK$2,549 air fare and the commission. The agency refused compensation.
In another case, an agency bumped up its fee when the employer asked for a helper who could look after her cat. There were also cases of helpers not turning up.
Philip Leung Kwong-hon, vice-chairman of the council's publicity and community relations committee, said the contract with the agency should specify when the maid would start work, any compensation mechanism, and details of fees.
'It's not easy to create law or an ordinance to regulate the agencies, so the most essential elements should be put down [in the contract] to protect [the employer],' he said.
Chow Kui-kuen, chairman of Assosiasi PPTKI, which represents 248 agencies providing domestic helpers from Indonesia, acknowledged there were unscrupulous agencies in the city, and said the number had increased rapidly in the past year.
While some 200 agencies in the city are recognised by the Indonesian consulate, more than 500 agencies had no such recognition, but still refer helpers to employers, he said.