Foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong

Travel agency at centre of missing Christmas flights fiasco makes commitment to refund passengers

Peya Travel has been asked to sign agreement with Philippine consular officials to give back money after the company booked customers onto flights that did not exist

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 December, 2017, 8:06pm
UPDATED : Friday, 22 December, 2017, 1:11am

The Hong Kong travel agency blamed for taking money from foreign domestic helpers and failing to book their flights home is expected to announce a commitment to fully refund affected customers, the Post understands.

Shedding light on the fiasco that saw hundreds of workers booked onto flights that did not exist, Peya Travel managing director Rhea Donna Boyce met with Philippine consular officials on Thursday to explain her side of the story.

Diplomats believe up to 1,000 customers, mainly foreign domestic helpers, were affected by missing flights, a situation that began last Sunday. Since then, the travel agent had said nothing about giving money back to customers.

“They are making a commitment to refund [customers],” Roderico Atienza, deputy consul general and acting head of post, told the Post, referring to Peya Travel.

“They have given us their word. We asked them to sign an undertaking, committing themselves to the actions they were taking they were going to do.”

The time it will take to refund customers was unclear, however.

Christmas blow for domestic helpers in Hong Kong as flights home don’t exist

Since the initial wave of customers were left stranded at the airport with phoney bookings on Sunday, on that day all but two members of staff quit Peya Travel leaving Boyce and one staff member to handle the situation, according to the claims retold by the consulate.

Problems started when staff took money from customers to make the bookings but failed to do so promptly, using a separate system, to book the tickets on the airline’s ticketing system. Boyce claimed the problem occurred on a small scale in May, and steps were taken to rectify it, however, the fallout in December suggests no members of staff were given proper supervision.

“Well if it’s negligence on this scale it is a systemic failure of management on their part,” ­Atienza said.

“It was just major incompetence,” he added, recounting the explanation from Boyce.

At the meeting, Boyce said she was innocent, according to Atienza, but accepted mistakes were made. However, if she was criminal, she could have left Hong Kong, but she did not, Boyce had told diplomats.

With her business in ruins, Boyce had acknowledged she may have to sell her property to refund all affected customers, it was said.

As of 5pm on Thursday, 322 people submitted complaints to the consulate, with some 250 people flying in December.

Philippine Airlines adds hundreds more seats for stranded helpers

Diplomats are investigating a case reported on Thursday morning of a foreign domestic helper who was allegedly sacked by her employer. Amid the travel agency chaos and confusion, helpers were forced to take time off work to handle their individual situations.

“We think it may have been an excuse for the employer. [If it was true] it would lead to a ban on the employer if we find out it was unjustified,” the senior diplomat said.

The consulate said “the main point is to calm people down and stop the speculation that has been going around.” It added: “The sooner [Peya Travel] can make the announcement, it will take the oxygen out of a mad frenzy and speculation.”

Peya Travel declined to speak to the media, the consulate said.

The Philippine consulate on Thursday wrote to Hong Kong’s top police officer urging the force to investigate a Hong Kong travel agency that sold flights to a thousands foreign domestic helpers that did not exist leaving them out of pocket.

Always on duty: foreign domestic helpers around the world

“We feel all the actions are insufficient and an investigation has to be undertaken by the police and there is cause for an investigation,” said Atienza.

In response, police declined to address the consulate’s letter and reiterated an earlier statement saying the case was being handled by the Travel Industry Council (TIC), the regulator of inbound and outbound travel agents.

“If the police don’t act on it, we have to press on, if by the letter we are sending to the Police Commissioner, they don’t act on it, then we [will],” the consulate said.

The government’s Travel Agents Registry temporarily revoked the licence of Peya Travel, halting it from doing new business. The TIC also “suspended temporarily” the agency’s membership.

TNG, the cashless payments company, had given away some money and would continue to handout its HK$500,000 gift to the helpers until Christmas Eve on Sunday from its shop in World-Wide House in Central.

Airlines were some of the first to react to the travel agency fiasco. Cathay Pacific and Philippine Airlines, who fly Hong Kong-Manila, placed bigger planes onto the route to get more helpers home in time for Christmas.