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Foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong

The data that lays bare the hidden links in Hong Kong’s domestic helper employment industry

While agencies and moneylenders sharing addresses may not suggest anything illegal, developers say they want to arm workers and employers with knowledge of who they are dealing with

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 July, 2018, 9:03am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 July, 2018, 9:57am

With allegations of collusion between agencies and moneylenders rife in Hong Kong’s domestic helper employment industry, a group of American students has worked with a local academic to – quite literally – join the dots between the firms, aiming to put more knowledge in the hands of workers, employers and the authorities.

The team – five Stanford University students, a fraud investigator and a professor from the University of Hong Kong – is launching a data visualiser that exposes suspicious connections involving employment agencies in the city, responsible for recruiting – and, in some cases, deceiving – thousands of domestic workers every year.

“The point is to illustrate potentially suspicious or concerning relationships that are existing between agencies where probably there should not be any in a marketplace operating in an ethical way,” said Jonah Bolotin, 22, an American software engineer and recent Stanford graduate.

“We had speculated that there would be some overlapping relationships, but what we found was even more interesting.”

The tool, already available online, shows how intricate the connections between different employment agencies and moneylenders are in Hong Kong. Many of them share addresses, phone or fax numbers and email addresses.

According to the visualiser, of the 1,448 agencies licensed to recruit foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong, 355 were on the same floor as at least one other agency or moneylender, and 320 shared the exact address with at least one other agency or moneylender.

The fact that agencies have the same address does not necessarily mean that they are doing anything illegal. But experts believe it is a suspicious indicator worth looking into. For instance, an agency at the same address as or near a moneylender may mean that the agent will require domestic helpers to take out high-interest loans, the group noted.

“We want to bring attention to the fact that these suspicious patterns of agencies would only exist in an industry that is underregulated and rampant with collusion,” said Taylor Amarel, a fraud investigator based in Hong Kong, who helped coordinate the project.

“I hope this [tool] will raise awareness for three sets of people,” Amarel said. “Employers, who can check the tool and think twice before using a certain agency; the government, so they can take notice of these suspicious or concerning connections that should not exist in a truly competitive market; and also the domestic workers, who can view this data and, accompanied by some reviews about agencies, can make a more informed choice.”

An undercover investigation last year revealed that more than 70 per cent of employment agencies in Hong Kong charged excessive fees to domestic helpers, withheld their passports, or did other illegal things. This year, other research showed further evidence of agencies charging abusive fees. Many workers take out loans to pay unscrupulous agencies and end up also being charged illegally high interest rates.

According to official statistics, the government conducted 1,846 inspections last year, but only 11 employment agencies were successfully prosecuted.

Hong Kong has more than 370,000 foreign domestic workers, most hailing from the Philippines and Indonesia.

David Bishop, a principal lecturer at the University of Hong Kong, who led the project, noted that the industry had not been properly monitored, partly because of an absence of digital tools.

“This is a great example of what can be done; of how using technology and data analytics can help to effectively monitor what is going on in the industry,” said Bishop, co-founder of Migrasia, a social enterprise focused on eliminating human trafficking and bonded labour in Asia. “And this is also a good example of a cross-border collaboration on issues of great social impact.”

Stop lenders demanding domestic helpers' passports, Hong Kong urged

As well as the visualiser, which was put together based on publicly available data, the team was working on other tools that may improve market transparency.

“The agency visualiser is just one of several products that we will be rolling out in the coming year,” said Jaime Deverall, a 21-year-old computer science student at Stanford. “We have realised that fixing the unethical practices of the employment agencies requires more than just strictly policing them. It requires the development of tools to automate more of their work so that they can save time and labour costs.”

Deverall, who grew up in Hong Kong with a Filipino mother and an Australian father, said that improving the working conditions of domestic helpers, as well as the way they are perceived, has been a “life mission”.

“Growing up, I would hear horror stories about the treatment of other domestic helpers from Manang Neneth and Manang Lila,” he said, referring to the two domestic workers who are still with his family.

“In Grade 8 at the Canadian International School of Hong Kong, I won an annual speech competition, in which I urged my fellow peers to empathise with the experience of their domestic helpers, who have sacrificed everything to work abroad and send money back home to their families,” he recalled.

As an adult, Deverall said he hoped to find innovative solutions not only targeting Hong Kong, but also other markets, such as the Middle East where many foreign domestic workers have faced abuse.

“I realised the power of applying rigorous computer science to these issues. Hopefully we can introduce more of these rigorous practices and help solve the problem,” he said.