Time to regulate foreign domestic helper agencies

April 14, 2015 11:23
After the court convicted the employer of Erwiana (inset) of abuse, Secretary for Labour and Welfare Matthew Cheung said the government will launch a set of working guidelines for domestic helper agencies within this year. Photos: HKEJ, AFP

Last month, an Indonesian maid was killed by a concrete block which fell on the balcony of her employment agency's hostel where she was sleeping. 

It is said that the victim first came to Hong Kong to work two years ago, returned to Indonesia after her contract was over, and came back recently after she found a new employer.

It was during her stay at the hostel to wait for her working visa that the accident happened. The tragedy not only exposed the problem of the lack of insurance protection for foreign domestic helpers (FDHs) before the start of their contracts, but also revealed the serious loopholes in the existing law that is supposed to regulate employment agencies through which local families recruit FDHs.

Most FDHs working in Hong Kong are recruited through these employment agencies. Under the current Employment Ordinance and the Employment Agency Regulations, employment agencies are allowed to charge 10 percent out of the helper's first monthly salary as commission.

However, undercover investigations have found that many employment agencies in fact charge a lot higher than that, some even up to HK$21,000.

What is more, despite the high commission they charge, many employment agencies fail to provide proper service and protection for FDHs and their employers.

While waiting for the approval of their working visas or the start of their job, most FDHs are made to stay in hostels provided by their employment agencies, and they have to pay about HK$50 a day for the accommodation.

The living and hygienic conditions at these so-called hostels are often appalling, with dozens of people squeezed into a tiny room of no more than 100 square feet with only one kitchen and toilet.

Those staying in these hostels are not insured because their contracts with their new employers have not officially started yet, and employment agencies are not legally obligated to provide insurance for them either.

During this period, they have no protection if they get injured or sick. On the other hand, when FDHs face exploitation or even ill-treatment by their new employers, most employment agencies tend not to intervene. They usually tell the FDHs to put up with the misery so they can pay off their referral fees on time.

Basically, the majority of FDHs in Hong Kong have no one to turn to for help in case of unfair treatment by their employers.

The case of Erwiana Sulistyaningsih might be an extreme case, but it might also be just a tip of the iceberg. Many other FDHs could be suffering similar abuses or ill treatment from their employers, although not as severe as what Erwiana has gone through.

Not only do employment agencies fail to look after the rights of FDHs, many of them also fail to provide proper service to FDH employers.

The Consumer Council received nearly 800 complaints against these employment agencies between 2009 and 2012. Many of the complainants found that the FDHs they employed simply didn’t match the descriptions provided by the employment agencies, and some suspected that the employment agencies had deliberately lied to them about the FDHs' work experience.

In fact, there are a lot of grey areas in the existing Employment Agency Regulations, and many employment agencies simply exploit the legal loopholes and continue to make money through unethical practices.

What the government should do right now is review the Employment Agency Regulations and tighten licensing and registration requirements for employment agencies specializing in FDHs, so as to offer better protection for the rights of both employers and FDHs.

After Erwiana’s case was uncovered, Secretary for Labour and Welfare Matthew Cheung Kin-chung promised to tighten regulations on these agencies, and study the feasibility of introducing new licensing requirements.

However, one year has passed, and the government has yet to deliver its promise. It still owes the public an answer as to when and how it is going to tighten regulations on FDH employment agencies.

This article first appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 13.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Policy research officer at Hong Kong Catholic Commission For Labour Affairs