By Fair Employment Agency
When hiring a domestic helper, many Hong Kong employers use an agency to process papers, either for the convenience factor or because the law requires them to. Of course, as with all industries, some companies perform better than others and customer service levels can vary. The other thing that can vary is the cost of hire, both for employer and employee, with some agencies secretly (and illegally) charging domestic helpers additional fees.
The practice of overcharging domestic helpers is problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, it leaves them with debts hanging over their heads, which can have a knock-on effect on their families back home as well as on their employers here in Hong Kong.
However it goes deeper than that. Agencies that charge domestic helpers are incentivised to place those who are willing to pay, rather than those who are right for the job. When a helper is fired or quits, the agency makes more money by charging replacement workers. Meanwhile, the domestic helper gets further into debt as she borrows more money for a new job.
But there is a better way… When hiring is done fairly, domestic helpers benefit because they start their jobs free from recruitment debt. Employers benefit too, because the agency is motivated to find a worker who will be a good match for their family, while Hong Kong benefits because employment agencies are held to higher standards of professionalism.
Ask, report, support
Regardless of the employment agency, there are three steps employers can take in order to make sure they are hiring domestic helpers in an ethical manner and supporting fair recruitment.
Agencies operating illegally will take advantage of misinformation, and will oftentimes brush over or avoid giving you details about their fees. Stay informed by asking both the agency and the domestic helper what the conditions of placement are.
Make sure to ask the employment agency for a detailed breakdown of costs for yourself and the worker, and ask the domestic helper what they actually paid. Crucially, ask the domestic helper if they have access to their passport or if the agency or a lender is holding it as collateral.
Legally, the maximum an employment agency can charge a domestic worker for processing is 10% of their first month’s salary, Currently, that amounts to HK$441. If you find out that the agency has overcharged your helper, it is important that you as an employer report this together with the domestic helper affected.
Reports about overcharging or passport holding should be made to the relevant consulate as well as to the Labour Department. For details on how to file a report, go to www.eaa.labour.gov.hk/en/contact-us.html.
Be aware that a complaint submitted by an employer is likely to be heard more strongly than one submitted by a domestic helper, who often does not have the same resources with which to present their case.
Many domestic helpers will need the support and reassurance of their employer to pursue a case against an overcharging agency. They may not know their statutory rights and may be worried about needing to take time off from work to attend court hearings.
Encourage your domestic helper to pursue a case by explaining to them that it is within their rights to do so. Let them know their job with you is not at risk if they pursue a case, and try to accommodate time off for them in order to attend court proceedings and seek legal counsel.
The sad reality is that there are many unethical employment agencies operating in Hong Kong, Indonesia and the Philippines. With this in mind, you’ll want to pay attention if the agency does any of the following:
– Offers low prices: If an agency is offering low prices, this usually means that it is forcing the domestic helper to make up the difference. When this happens, it can cause a host of problems for both employer and domestic helper.
– Offers an ‘exit to Macau’ option: This exposes both the domestic helper and the employer to prosecution for violating immigration law. Depending on the situation the domestic helper is leaving, the law requires them to return to their place of origin between contracts.
– Offers unusually fast processing: When an agency promises extremely fast processing times, more often than not, they are just using unrealistic marketing tactics. The truth is that agencies have almost no control over processing times. You can find out more about expected processing times here: www.fairagency.org/long-take-process-domestic-helper-visa.
Finally, as a minimum, you should check that the employment agency you use is fully licensed and accredited. The following links are useful for this:
Fair Employment Agency (FEA) was founded in 2014 to offer a better way of hiring domestic helpers. By using its service, employers have helped avoid an estimated US$3.5 million in recruitment debt, or the equivalent of approximately 580 years of forced labour.
For more information and resources about domestic helper hiring and management, go to www.fairagency.org/answers.