More power should be given to the Labour Department so it can monitor employment agencies more closely, a welfare group has suggested, as unions said scams involving foreign domestic helpers had been common in Hong Kong for years.
Phoebe Lam Bik-che, a social worker at the Diocesan Pastoral Centre for Filipinos, said workers were usually attracted by the high wages and good employee benefits when they fell into traps set up by unscrupulous employment agencies.
They were given little information about the employer the agency arranged for them, and a loophole in the law had made them susceptible to unscrupulous agencies.
The Labour Department said it could refuse to renew or revoke an agency's licence if it was found to be overcharging job seekers.
The department would check records and make inquiries when it conducted inspections.
Lam said the department's power should be extended to examine agencies' conduct.
"Now the agencies can escape liability if they offer fake jobs to applicants overseas," she said.
"In some cases, agencies threaten the domestic helpers that they will terminate their visas in Hong Kong if they consider the workers are asking too many questions. Now, the government has no power to punish these agencies for misbehaviour like this."
The group had heard from the Filipino community about scams involving agencies arranging overseas employment, but did not have figures as such cases were mostly reported to the Philippine consulate.
The consulate refused to reveal the number of complaints it had received.
Most such agencies offered jobs in Spain and Canada and required applicants to pay tens of thousands of dollars for processing, she said, adding that some agencies kept the applicants' passports.
Richard Lam Kwok-chuen of Metro Asia Recruitment Services said it was not industry practice to sign contracts with applicants before jobs were secured.
"They only sign a contract when we have successfully found a job for them," Lam said.
He said some workers had arrived in Canada to find no job had been arranged for them.
He and the Federation of Asian Domestic Workers' Unions both said unscrupulous agencies were common in Hong Kong.
The department said it had received 54 complaints against employment agencies involving job seekers being overcharged for commission fees.
Agencies can collect a commission of not more than 10 per cent of a worker's first month of salary after being successfully placed in a job.