Sevenfold increase in fines proposed for those overcharging domestic helpers in Hong Kong
Government proposes to increase fine to HK$350,000, but campaigners say it will be useless unless employment agencies are prosecuted
The government is seeking a sevenfold increase in the maximum penalty for agencies that overcharge jobseekers, particularly domestic helpers, from HK$50,000 to HK$350,000.
Such a move, if approved, could help tackle the problem of overcharging, which has trapped thousands of domestic helpers in debt bondage.
But campaigners and workers believe it will have little impact if there is no proper enforcement.
The proposed amendment to the Employment Ordinance will be tabled in the Legislative Council on Wednesday.
“It’s a step in the right direction, but the government needs to ... cooperate with the police, get criminal charges laid and, of course, they need to work with the director of public prosecutions,” Hong Kong Domestic Workers’ Roundtable chairman Allan Bell said, describing the matter as urgent.
“There’s a black market in Hong Kong that has been created by the vacuum and the lack of enforcement. If you don’t put agents in jail and you don’t fine them the full amount then there is no deterrent effect.”
The Labour Department conducted 1,816 inspections between January 2016 and May this year, but only 13 employment agencies were convicted and five lost their licences. The heaviest fine incurred by an agency during that period was HK$30,000.
In May, Students Against Fees and Exploitation, a group from the University of Hong Kong, revealed the results of a seven-month investigation, which found more than 70 per cent of employment agencies charge helpers excessive fees, withhold passports or engage in other illegal practices.
Previous studies have also shown that indebtedness due to excessive agency fees has made domestic workers vulnerable to forced labour and human rights abuses.
Dolores Balladares, spokeswoman for the Asian Migrants Coordinating Body, gave a cautious welcome to the government initiative. “I think it’s a good move, as this is one of our biggest problems in Hong Kong,” she said.
However, Balladares also called for stricter implementation of current laws as well as more prosecutions.
“There are many complaints by domestic helpers against agencies, but at the end of the day they are not prosecuted. Some might receive a small fine or have their licence revoked, but few are prosecuted,” she said.
Laurence Fauchon, founder of HelperChoice, an online platform that puts employers and helpers in touch at no cost to the workers, welcomed the move.
“Currently the fine is not enough of a deterrent compared to what the agencies can gain from overcharging domestic workers,” she said.
Agencies may only legally charge 10 per cent of the first month’s salary of a worker. The monthly minimum wage of a helper is currently HK$4,310.
Teresa Liu Tsui-lan, chairwoman of the Association of Hong Kong Manpower Agencies and managing director of Technic Employment Service Centre, supported the proposal.
“We agree because we are all licensed and follow the legal instructions. That won’t be a problem for us,” she said.
The proposal aims to extend the scope of the overcharging offence to those associated with an agency, including managers and employees.
The government also wants to raise the maximum penalty for agencies operating without a licence from HK$50,000 to HK$350,000 and imprisonment for three years.
The initiative follows the introduction of a non-binding code of conduct for agencies in January.
A government spokesman said the legislative amendments “will afford better protection for jobseekers, particularly domestic helpers who come to work in Hong Kong for the first time and may easily fall prey to dishonest employment agencies that overcharge ... They will also generate greater deterrence against the malpractices of employment agencies.”