More than 90 per cent of women working as product promoters in shops feel they are being exploited by their bosses and store operators, according to a labour association's survey.
The Women Workers' Association found that most of the women were not protected by the Employment Ordinance and often had to put up with undesirable working conditions.
Promoters work in small booths rented by their employers in supermarkets or department stores. Their job is to encourage interest in products - ranging from kitchen utensils to food and drink - through special offers, free samples or tastings. They earn an average of HK$300 a day for an eight-hour shift.
The association interviewed 151 promoters and found that 90 per cent of them felt exploited because they were denied employment rights or were made to take on extra duties.
More than 80 per cent were hired on a part-time or temporary basis, which allowed employers to exploit grey areas in the Employment Ordinance.
Only employees who work at least 18 hours a week and have worked continuously for at least four weeks are covered by the law's provisions on welfare, such as sickness pay and maternity leave.
"Most promoters do not enjoy a sickness allowance or annual leave, because they are deliberately made 'underemployed' by employers," said association organiser Zenneth Ng Cheuk-ling.
More than 50 per cent of promoters were not entitled to participate in the Mandatory Provident Fund, the city's private pension, and over 80 per cent were not entitled severance pay.
While they are hired by the product's sales agents, many promoters are also forced to do extra duties for the stores. They can be asked to move stock from the stock room or attend staff meetings with full-time staff in their own time for no extra pay.
"I was once told [by a store manager] - you work here so you are half an employee here. You have to do whatever I ask you to do," said Cheung Ling-how, 50, who has worked as a promoter for more than five years. "We are forced to obey."
But the majority of those surveyed said they were too worried about losing their jobs to complain to their employers, who dare not ask the stores to go easy on their employees for fear that it may harm their business.
"Even if we were brave enough to complain to our bosses, they would not do anything," Cheung said. "They are afraid that the booth rent may be raised or they may not be able to rent the venue."