CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 22 April 2017

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Glaring evidence of marginalisation

HONG KONG (SE): At a time of year when our Church asks us to especially have our eyes and hearts open to the plight of those in society who are exploited, suppressed and used by the economic machine, the Mission for Migrant Workers has released a distressing report on the conditions suffered by one of the most vulnerable groups in Hong Kong society—migrant domestic workers.

Despite talked up claims from both the Philippine and Indonesian Consulates General about efforts to force recruitment agencies to act within the law, the mission says that statistics collected from its over 5,000 clients last year show a dramatic increase in agency overcharging.

The report notes that all up 90 agencies were named as overcharging by clients of the mission, but the ones it describes as the most notorious are Mike’s Secretarial Service/Emrys, FindStaff and Yan Yee.

It adds that there was also an increase in the number seeking unpaid wages and benefits and, while there is no evidence of any improvement in general living conditions, the provision of insufficient amounts of food to workers is emerging as a serious problem.

The Mission for Migrant Workers, which has its offices at St. John’s Cathedral in Central, has been handling complaints of fraud, illegal practices by recruitment agencies, including overcharging and forcing clients to take out fraudulent loans, since it was founded in 1981.

The report from the mission says that while there has been a spike in complaints in some areas, the ongoing general problems of long working hours, deprivation of holidays (or part of the mandatory continuous 24-hour break) have shown no improvement.

The law in Hong Kong allows for a recruitment fee of no more than 10 per cent of one month’s minimum allowable wage, or $431, but only four per cent of workers who approached the mission during 2016 reported paying that amount.

Most amounts demanded by the agencies ranged between $5,000 and $10,000, while 21 per cent said that they had been charged up to $15,000. Another disturbing trend is a rise in the number who said that they had paid in excess of $15,000.

However, this is not where the problem ends, as excessive fees and forced loans are two issues that are tightly tied together. Excess fees normally take the form of a fraudulent personal loan, but repayable to the agency.

The charges are disguised as registration or training fees in order to step around the legal cap the government places on fees.

By far the biggest complaint made by clients of the mission is long working hours (92 per cent), with almost 40 per cent reporting more than 16 hours a day; illegal recruitment agency practices; no provision of privacy for sleeping, which is a legal requirement (over 40 per cent); and the new spike, lack of sufficient food (26 per cent).

Other complaints centre on having to work prior to beginning their day off; with one per cent saying that they are denied their mandatory holidays completely; confiscation of passports and other legal documents by their employer or agency (a contravention of Hong Kong law); and the constant problems of abuse, illegal deductions from and unpaid salary; and maternity issues.

The mission, through a series of professional contacts, works to recover much of the money owing to its clients and in 2016 managed to recoup $3.07 million, mostly from agencies for overcharged fees or unpaid allowances from employers.

The mission describes its services as being an expression of the Christian faith and says that its clients are able to experience care and understand that it is Christ’s work being carried out among them.

It also works to promote understanding both among the wider migrant community and the people of Hong Kong, as it believes that as people with few enforceable rights, they deserve better care and protection than they receive.

Since its foundation, the mission has been lobbying governments for better developed policies that can be policed, as well as for an improvement in social attitudes towards them as a group of people.

It has also been proactive in running general education services for migrant workers, as well as offering general health and daily living tips.

But one of the areas that it sees as its most vital involvement is in promoting better relations with the employers of migrant labour.

While some 80 per cent of its clients are Filipino, almost equally divided between married and single, and the ages of 19 to 45, in all but a few cases they are women.

However, clients at the live-in shelter, Bethune House, are almost equally divided between Filipino and Indonesian.

They have cases before the court and are the most vivid example of legal discrimination, as while waiting for their cases to be settled, they are not allowed to work and so denied the right to support themselves and their families, in addition to having to rely on the charity of others for their day to day existence.

This is a clear expression of their inequality before the law, which the Mission for Asian Workers believes for a group that makes a significant economic contribution to Hong Kong society and promotes unity and harmony in households is simply not good enough.

The manager of the mission, Cynthia Abdon-Tellez, believes that unless a more multicultural society can be developed in Hong Kong, marginalisation and exclusion will continue to be the norm for the whole population.

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