Foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong
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Shiella Estrade (left) and Armafe Cajiben of the Progressive Labour Union of Domestic Workers in Hong Kong. They both work as domestic helpers. Photo: Bruce Yan

Illegal fees, little rest and no documents: domestic helpers in Hong Kong continue to fight for their rights

Unions and human rights groups report that Filipino helpers continue to pay high fees to agencies and that exploitation in some cases amounts to forced labour

A year-long investigation has brought fresh evidence that Filipino domestic workers are victims of various forms of exploitation and continue to pay illegal fees to agencies in the city – in some cases more than 25 times the legally permitted limit.

However, just 23 agencies were fined and 13 lost their licences, even though more than 5,000 inspections were carried out between January 2014 and September this year.

“Indebtedness due to excessive agency fees is a pivotal issue in terms of explaining why migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong remain vulnerable to human and labour rights abuses, including forced labour,” reads the report, which was a collaborative effort among several unions and human rights organisations, including the Hong Kong Federation of Asian Domestic Workers.

Their “situation is made worse by some of Hong Kong’s immigration and labour regulations, particularly the two-week rule and the live-in requirement ... In addition, there are some serious gaps in Hong Kong’s legal framework in relation to trafficking and forced labour,” it said.

Foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong have to live with their employers. If they lose their job, they have just two weeks to find another before they have to leave the city.

Filipino domestic workers dance in Central. The report highlighted a darker side to their lives. Photo: Nora Tam

Helpers and campaigners are urging the Hong Kong government to crack down on agencies and make legal changes to better protect them. Lawmaker Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung said he would place the issue on the Legislative Council agenda in the coming months.

The study, entitled Between a Rock and a Hard Place, which was released on Sunday along with a short documentary, included in-depth interviews with 68 Filipino helpers by the Progressive Labour Union of Domestic Workers, as well as visits to 10 different placement agencies from October last year to June this year.

Charged 25 times the permitted limit

Although recruitment agencies in the Philippines are prohibited from charging a placement fee, 84 per cent of interviewees said they paid an agency fee averaging HK$8,800.

Once they landed in Hong Kong, 40 out of 57 interviewees paid a further fee to a placement agency in the city averaging HK$11,320 or the equivalent of more than 25 times the legally permitted maximum charge, the study found.

Many helpers needed almost half a year to pay off the fee.

Hong Kong placement agencies also profit from the two-week rule by sending Filipino domestic workers to neighbouring Macau as they arrange a work visa for a new job. And in many cases, they also held their passports illegally, the investigation found.

A total of 24 women, who went to Macau after their contracts expired or were terminated, were charged an average HK$5,778 in agency fees – 10 times the legally permitted limit.

“We want the Hong Kong government to implement the 10 per cent rule [agencies can only legally charge 10 per cent of the first month’s salary] and increase the penalties,” Progressive Labour Union of Domestic Workers in Hong Kong chairwoman Shiella Estrade told the Post.

“We put three agencies in court recently and they were only fined a few thousand dollars… It’s obvious that they will continue overcharging,” she said.

The Labour Department conducted 5,233 inspections between January 2014 and September this year, but only 23 agencies were fined between HK$1,500 and HK$45,000. Thirteen saw their licenses revoked.

“Hong Kong keeps saying it will punish abusive agencies but it’s obviously not a priority,” Estrade said.

Victims of exploitative practices

According to the report, domestic workers are victims of “a range of exploitative practices” that “would meet the internationally recognised definitions of forced labour and trafficking.”

Domestic helpers described “the use of deception and coercion by recruitment agencies in the Philippines and placement agencies and/or employers in Hong Kong.”

Foreign domestic workers do not always get a full day off work. Photo: Felix Wong

Jocelyn, a domestic worker, described her life in the documentary: “The old woman [her employer] shouted at me, took a stick and banged it on me ... When I think of the old woman, sometimes I cry at night ... I never hurt people, but they are hurting me.”

Only five out of 65 helpers interviewed were allowed a full day’s rest.

More than half said they were not free to leave their employer’s home during their time off, and 24 out of 67 had their passports or employment contracts confiscated by their employer or placement agency. A similar proportion reported they were not allowed to call home or meet friends.

In total, 72 per cent experienced one or more mechanisms of control, “leaving them isolated and making it very difficult for them to legally change jobs or challenge exploitative employers,” the report said.

The Labour Department denied that “forced labour” was practised in the city. “We strongly refute any suggestion that foreign domestic helpers’ work in Hong Kong is anything close to a form of forced labour,” a spokesman told the Post.

Last year, only 1,449 claims were made by domestic workers in relation to violations of their employment rights. Some 70 per cent of these were settled through conciliation.

The two-week rule means that in order to file a case against a former employer, a foreign domestic worker must apply for an extension of stay, which costs HK$190 and does not allow work.

“How can we survive here without working? Of course many domestic helpers won’t complain,” Estrade noted.

The spokesman said: “The Labour Department had all along been enhancing foreign domestic helpers’ awareness of their rights and benefits as well as the channels through which they may seek assistance.” A code of practice for agencies is currently being finalised.

A report released earlier this year by the Justice Centre showed that one is six migrant workers were in forced labour. Victoria Wisniewski Otero, an advocacy officer at the non-profit organisation, said: “What is really surprising for me is that there has not been a public discussion about forced labour and human trafficking in Legco ... How many more reports will it take for the government to take action or even have a discussion on this?”

Lawmaker Cheung said that he was planning to bring the issue up in Legco’s manpower panel. “I think the government is aware of the problem, but lacks the strong will to tackle it,” he said, adding that local people should appreciate the contribution that domestic workers have made to the city.