Maids' rights groups have slammed the government's decision to reject 170 applications from domestic helpers for work visas on the basis of suspected job-hopping, calling the accusations lies.
Security chief Lai Tung-kwok last week said 1,372 foreign domestic workers who applied for work visas last year were suspected of job-hopping - changing employers frequently without proper reasons - to collect severance pay. Of those applications, 170 were rejected.
"We are workers, not criminals," some 30 representatives of maids' rights associations chanted yesterday as the groups protested outside the Immigration Tower in Wan Chai.
Foreign domestic workers were often ill-advised by their agency and would become the party to propose contract termination when it was the employer who wanted to fire the maid, said Indonesian Migrant Workers Union spokeswoman Sring Atin. Some helpers might then be wrongly accused of being job-hoppers. "The maids may not really understand the language, even if it was written in Bahasa Indonesia. That is the agencies' tactic, how they protect the employers," she said.
Sring also dismissed accusations that helpers profited from job-hopping. She said maids were not entitled to severance pay if they left before their first year was up, and the airfare costs - paid for by employers - often went to the agencies instead. Many workers received nothing after leaving the job, she said.
Few dared to speak up as most were required to pay their agency an average of HK$21,000 if their contract was terminated within the first seven months of employment, Sring said.
"This is the government's tactic to make migrant workers scared … to make sure that they just keep silent, whatever their employers are doing to them," she said, referring to the recent abuse case of Indonesian helper Erwiana Sulistyaningsih.
A source familiar with maid employment firms' operations said exploitation of the workers, such as having the firms pocket the maids' severance pay and airfare home, was common among Indonesian agencies. Agencies in the Philippines were usually better regulated, the source said.
At the protest yesterday, the maids' rights associations urged the government to scrap the two-week rule, which allows foreign domestic helpers to remain in the city only for that period of time to find a new employer once their contract ends.
Allowing maids a month to seek new employment, plus the option to apply for an extension of stay, would be more appropriate and consistent with the government's treatment of expatriate workers, Sring said.
The groups also called for a change to the mandatory live-in rule, which requires maids to live with their employers.
In a paper submitted to the Legislative Council panel on manpower today, the government said it would keep both the two-week and live-in rules.
"The main purpose of the two-week rule is to allow foreign domestic workers sufficient time to prepare for their departure and not to facilitate them to find new employers," the paper stated.
As for the live-in rule, the government said the import of foreign labour was to "meet the acute shortfall of local live-in domestic workers", and that foreign domestic helpers were informed of this before they applied to work in the city.