Domestic helpers coming to Hong Kong from Myanmar will have to pay about HK$16,000 to their home recruitment agency - the highest fee in the region.
The Myanmese agency, Gold Mine International, had invested HK$1 million in the business, according to its Hong Kong partner, which said it was legal to charge workers this much.
But advocates for domestic workers fear it will be difficult for them to repay so much money. They are concerned that the helpers will be more vulnerable than workers from the Philippines and Indonesia due to the lack of established support networks for them in Hong Kong.
The lives of domestic workers in the city have come under the spotlight after an Indonesian maid, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, was allegedly abused at the hands of her employer, causing public alarm.
"They can pay in instalments and pay [the Myanmese agency] HK$2,000 a month. They are willing to do so and they can pay back the money in full in months," said Law Yiu-keung, managing director of the Golden Mind Employment Agency in Hong Kong.
He said the workers would make HK$4,010 a month in Hong Kong, five times more than the US$100 they could expect to make in general employment in Myanmar. Law said his agency would only charge them HK$401, in line with the city's law.
Leo Tang Kin-wa, organising secretary at the Confederation of Trade Unions, said Filipino and Indonesian domestic workers had been in Hong Kong for years and had a support network.
"Myanmese workers do not have this network … they may also struggle to get help because they will need time to master Chinese and English," he said.
He suggested the Myanmese government and local employers share the HK$16,000 charge.
The Philippine government does not allow agencies to charge workers, although some agencies break the law and charge tens of thousands of pesos. The Indonesian government allows agencies to charge workers about HK$13,500 for expenses such as medical checks and training.
Oake Khaung, founder of Gold Mine International, admitted that training and travel costs would be deducted from salaries.
Law added that the first group of 19 Myanmese helpers would arrive on February 18 and he hoped to import up to 2,000 this year. Hongkongers who want to hire a Myanmese helper must pay HK$8,900 to Law's agency.
Khin Way Oo, director of migrant affairs at Myanmar's Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security, said Hong Kong recruitment agencies had become very active in Myanmar. But she declined to answer questions about regulations covering the export of domestic workers.
Additional reporting by Vincent Maclsaac in YangonTopics: Foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong Erwiana Sulistyaningsih