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Foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong

Undercover investigation exposes the Hong Kong employment agencies still exploiting domestic workers for profit

Little more than a year after new code of practice was introduced over 50 per cent of helpers are being charged illegally high fees, Federation of Asian Domestic Workers Union study shows

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 June, 2018, 6:45pm
UPDATED : Monday, 18 June, 2018, 1:50am

An undercover investigation has exposed unscrupulous bosses ripping off Hong Kong’s domestic workers by making them pay illegally high fees to get a job – despite last year’s official guidelines to the contrary.

Research by the Federation of Asian Domestic Workers Union (FADWU) has uncovered further evidence of employment agencies charging some of the city’s poorest workers significantly more than allowed.

Video footage taken in secret by volunteers at seven agencies in the city show firms demanding anywhere between HK$3,500 (US$448) to HK$10,000 for job placements – eight to 20 times over the legal limit.

The FADWU carried out its investigation between July 2017 and March this year, and was the first aimed at assessing the impact of a new voluntary code of conduct for the industry put into effect by the government last January.

The code underlines the statutory requirements and “minimum standards” that employment agencies must follow, including keeping such fees below 10 per cent of the first month’s wages.

“Non-compliance with the [code] is not confined to a few rogue agencies, but rather a widespread problem throughout Hong Kong,” Phobusk Gasing, the union chairman, said. “Our research documents that 148 registered agencies – 10 per cent of the total [1,439 licensed employment agencies] – violated one or more aspects of the code.”

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The minimum wage for hiring a domestic helper in Hong Kong is HK$4,410, meaning agency fees, which are capped at 10 per cent, should be no higher than HK$441.

However, the investigation found that 56 per cent of the 452 domestic workers interviewed were charged far higher rates, with new migrants paying an average of HK$9,013 (US$1,154).

Filipino domestic helper Regina Andres, 39, paid HK$4,000 to her Manila agent for “training” and arrived in Hong Kong in March 2017, only to find her local agent demanding a HK$10,000 “agency fee”.

“I was scared,” she said. “I knew most helpers are victims of overcharging and most are scared to complain for fear of losing their jobs.”

Andres struggled to pay off HK$8,000 in four months, but eventually flagged the problems to her bewildered employer who told Andres that a HK$6,000 agency fee had already been paid for her. She was encouraged to file a complaint to the Labour Department.

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Without any receipts, Andres was only able to claim HK$500 and is now bringing the case to the Labour Tribunal.

“I am ready to fight for my rights because I now know this agency is illegal,” she said.

The investigation found that 96 per cent of agencies used by interviewees did not comply with key aspects of the code – with 24 per cent of interviewees admitting having personal documents such as passports and contracts taken from them, which the union said could be used as a “mechanism of coercion”.

Around one third of interviewees said they were given inaccurate information by their agency regarding their job nature, including the terms, conditions and costs.

“Unless the Labour Department strengthens its monitoring and inspections system, and effectively investigates and punishes non-compliant employment agencies, the [code] will remain toothless and ineffectual in protecting the rights of migrant domestic workers,” Gasing said.

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Cheung Kit-man, chairman of the Hong Kong Employment Agencies Association, said he was aware of some rule-breaking firms charging more than 10 per cent but was sceptical about claims of overcharging placement fees as high HK$10,000.

“This is of course illegal,” he said. “But firms that charge so high would be rendered uncompetitive as there is a labour shortage now. How would such a firm be able to survive?”

He said complaints have already been reduced significantly since the code was released.

The department produced the long-awaited voluntary code last January after receiving hundreds of complaints from jobseekers and domestic helpers about the agencies, with the most common grievance related to the overcharging of fees.

Labour Party lawmaker Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung said it was shameful that such practices continued to happen in Hong Kong and urged the government to take urgent action.

“The Labour Department has responsibility to strengthen their investigative powers and strengthen manpower to closely monitor these agencies,” he said.

In 2017, the Labour Department convicted just 11 agencies for breaking the law, while 19 were given warning letters.

The Labour Department said it would monitor the effectiveness of the code, strengthen enforcement and raise awareness of the code’s requirements among agencies.

Domestic helpers were also urged to report suspected overcharging cases to the department.

Employment agencies, or any of their staffers found overcharging, can face a maximum penalty of HK$350,000 and a three-year prison sentence.