CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Sunday, 1 September 2019

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A long haul but recruitment agency business can be cleaned up

HONG KONG (SE): David Bishop, the founder of an employment agency set up with the deliberate aim of not charging foreign domestic workers illegal fees, said at a forum held in the Meng Wah Complex at the University of Hong Kong on May 22 that eliminating unethical and illegal practices from the industry needs the cooperation of both employers and employees.

Bishop, together with Scott Styles, established the Fair Employment Agency in Wanchai one and a half years ago with the specific aim of setting a market standard for ethical recruitment practices.

He told a gathering of the Domestic Workers Empowerment Project that by far the biggest and most damaging exploitation of foreign domestic workers is the malpractice of the employment agencies.

He accused them of providing poor services, as well as indulging in illegal practices, like withholding clients’ passports and charging illegal fees.

“If there is an opportunity to leave a bad employer without paying an agency fee, other problems like the two-weeks-rule are easier to solve,” he said, adding that this does not mean that the anti-migrant policies of the Hong Kong government do not continue to be a problem.

Addressing the rights of an employee under the Employment Ordinance of Hong Kong, Bishop said that his ambition is to rid the recruitment industry of the illegal activities that all migrant workers know to be common practice and a plague that deeply affects their lives.

He said that he wants to rebuild the industry more or less from scratch, which drew a loud round of applause from the gathering.

However, he said that he felt sad that the gathering found a commitment to abide by the law something that should be worthy of such a loud applause.

He pointed out that there is a set limit for agency fees and anything over and above that is illegal, so not over charging workers should be the standard practice.

The law in Hong Kong requires an employment agency to only charge a worker 10 per cent of their first month’s salary.

However, the Fair Employment Agency which he founded does charge employers for all costs incurred, which he said total between $5,000 and $10,000 a time, depending on a number of factors.

Bishop strongly encouraged workers who have been charged illegal fees to do something about it, as without client complaint and testimony, it is impossible to affect reform.

He said even for people who do not have the courage to report the matter to the Philippine Consulate General or the Hong Kong authorities, he believes they should at least record their experience with a bad agency on a website, http://migrasia.org, which was launched by his office so that workers could rate the agencies they have used and leave comments anonymously about poor service or malpractices.

However, Bishop lamented that many workers treat their agencies too kindly, as even though many only rate them as four stars out of five, they still say they would recommend them to their friends.

This is despite the fact that they withheld their passports and overcharged them by extracting illegal fees from them.

Bishop also encouraged employers to look for ethical agencies, which provide standard services without illegal charges.

He added that the agencies are also responsible to the employers, as they undertake to provide good matches according to their requirements, not just workers who are prepared to flaunt the law themselves, by paying exorbitant fees, to get a job.

He added that his agency had a strong database of workers, as many have chosen to use its services because of its refusal to charge illegal fees.

Bishop said that he believes a fairly widespread practice of some agencies is to deliberately provide bad matches, as unsatisfied employers need to pay additional charges if they want to fire them and hire another worker.

He disputed the commonly held belief that a high agency fee is a way for an employer to force a worker to be diligent or stick with the job.

“Employees who have debt issues will not be properly motivated and are more likely to have problems, or even create problems for their employers,” he said.

“If someone is caring for your child or father, you want them focussed on their job, not their debt. No employer wants debt collectors coming around to collect fees and cause trouble,” he explained.

He told the Sunday Examiner that even though his agency is only charging employers a reasonable fee, it is still doing fine financially, showing that it is not necessary to flaunt the law in order to stay in business.

“The fact is that most agencies are making a lot of money by overcharging employers and charging illegal fees to the workers. We will be around for a long, long time,” he said, adding that honest practices will enable him to maintain long-term relationships with all his clients—both employers and employees.

However, many find that if they do not pay a lot more than the legal fee, the agencies simply will not deal with them.

Gloria Luzares, who came to Hong Kong in December last year, said she had to pay her agency in The Philippines around $4,000 for training before coming to Hong Kong, which only amounted to watching a video about housework tips for an hour.

The fee also covered accommodation in Manila for one night before her flight, a medical examination and the rest went in administration fees.

After she came to Hong Kong, she said she still needed to pay around $3,000 within her first three months, which the agency claimed were administration costs in Hong Kong and the balance of her service charges in The Philippines.

She said she heard from some other workers who used the same agency that they have just skipped the payment of $3,000 after they had landed a job, for they knew the fee was illegal.

But she paid anyway, because she was worried about possible consequences.

Besides, she said the agency staff treated her nicely and gave her encouragement when she received good comments from her Hong Kong employer—the very attitude that Bishop says is so deeply worrying.

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