CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Sunday, 1 September 2019

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Migrant recruitment agencies a pampered racket

HONG KONG (SE): “If you will let us look for your new employer, we will charge at least $8,000,” a migrant worker pretending that she had been recently terminated was told by a member of the staff at an employment agency in Mong Kok on March 3.

Their conversation is just one among 10 secretly recorded by the Progressive Labour Union of Domestic Workers in Hong Kong and Rights Exposure that is included a newly-released documentary, Between a Rock and a Hard Place.

The 20-minute documentary shows migrant domestic workers as being tightly wedged among government indifference, prejudicial attitudes of the general population and outright exploitation on the part of their agencies, which tend to regard the employer as their primary client, not the worker.

Robert Godden, the director of Campaigns and Communications for Rights Exposure, said the 10 covert recordings reveal that all the agencies investigated violated the Hong Kong Employment Ordinance in at least one instance, either by charging illegal fees or asking for payment before their client has received their first month’s salary.

“It is hard to get evidence of employment agencies charging illegal fees, because obviously agencies would not issue receipts for fees they have charged illegally that could prove that they are violating the law,” Holly Allan, the director of Helpers for Domestic Helpers, says in the documentary film.

Godden said the recordings are a concrete demonstration that agencies in Hong Kong are overtly blatant in charging illegal fees. He told the Sunday Examiner that in the future, they may record real cases involving money transactions that can be used as evidence in pursuing a case in the court.

The documentary was launched on October 30 together with the results of a survey revealing how both the Philippine and Hong Kong governments fail in their duty to prevent agencies from charging migrant domestic workers illegal fees.

Between October 2015 and June 2016, the Progressive Labour Union of Domestic Workers has carried out in-depth interviews with 68 Filipino migrants in Hong Kong and Macau.

While employment agencies in The Philippines are prohibited by law from charging placement fees, 84 per cent of Filipinos interviewed said they had paid an average of $8,853 to get through the web of demands agencies put in place before they will hand out a job placement.

In addition, the survey shows that it is not just newcomers on the block that get cheated, as even experienced campaigners have been forced by agencies to undergo training, which the law does not require, for no other reason than to bolster their profits.

On the other hand, Hong Kong law only allows agencies to charge 10 per cent of the first month’s salary of a domestic worker, or $431 if the minimum allowable wage is being applied, but the average amount those who were interviewed forked out was $11,321, over 25 times the legal limit.

Phobsuk Gasing, the chairperson of the Hong Kong Federation of the Asian Domestic Workers Union, said during a press conference at the launch of the documentary that the charging of illegal fees by both Hong Kong and Philippine agencies leaves migrant domestic workers with a huge debt.

Consequently, they do not dare to challenge abusive employers if they are unlucky enough to get landed with one, because they cannot afford to get fired as they need their salary urgently to pay off the debt.

Sheila Estrada, the chairperson of the Progressive Labour Union of Domestic Workers, said the perpetuation of the blatant practice of charging illegal fees is aided by the difficulty of getting evidence and the light penalties applied on the odd occasion that agencies are convicted.

“The agencies know that they are unlikely to get caught charging illegal fees. They hide their criminal activities by using loan companies to collect the fees and refusing to issue receipts to the domestic workers. Even for those few who are caught, the fine is insignificant, so it does not act as an effective deterrent,” Estrada explained.

Both the Hong Kong and Philippine governments have failed to adequately monitor, prosecute and punish employment agencies for malpractice.

Estrada said that between 2014 and 2015, the Labour Department of Hong Kong only secured 10 convictions for overcharging with the highest fine being $45,000.

To add insult to injury, convicted agencies do not have their licences revoked and are still allowed to operate legally, making their blatant law-breaking a pampered racket in the eyes of the law.

She pointed out that migrant rights workers have been urging the Hong Kong government to make the issuance of receipts mandatory for years, but to no avail.

Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung, a Labour Party member of the Legislative Council (LegCo), said at the screening of the documentary that the exploitation of foreign domestic workers by agencies is not new.

However, he stressed that what is alarming is that the law can continue to be broken under the very eye of the government for decades, making agencies that keep the law an exception.

Cheung said the government should conduct thorough checks on employment agencies, as well as begin to gather evidence, which requires the cooperation of both the Labour Department and the police.

He said he intends to bring this up in the LegCo and suggest an increase in the penalty for employment agencies that are caught violating the law.

Cheung added that he will also bring some input to the discussion about the Code of Practice for Employment Agencies, which will soon be implemented, into the LegCo, but even though he has reservations about whether it will be honoured or not, he still believes that having one is an important step forward.

However, he said he believes that discrimination against migrant domestic workers is the real root of the problem, as it is at the bottom of the various types of exploitation they face.

Cheung pointed out that this is evidenced by the lack of reports about migrant rights issues published by Chinese media and the criticism that complaining employers throw at them about their bad habits in online forums.

As a result, there is a lack of concern over their rights, which gives rise to the lack of pressure brought upon the Hong Kong government to look into migrant worker issues leaving them marooned between a rock and a hard place.

Cheung believes that migrant domestic workers should be treated as an equal group in Hong Kong society, but a lot more education is needed to inspire Hong Kong people to even begin to care.

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