For many foreign domestic workers (FDWs) in Hong Kong, recruitment agencies are not paths to employment stability but to constant insecurity and severe debt bondage. Starting from the country of origin and continuing while in Hong Kong, FDWs have to contend with overcharging, illegal collection of fees, repayment of fraudulent loans and, oftentimes, harassments and threats from agency collectors.
These problems are very much present among Indonesian and Filipino domestic workers who comprise the overwhelming majority of FDWs in Hong Kong. The following are partial data from FDWs who approached the Mission between January to June this year:
- 72% of clients have complaints against recruitment and/or moneylending agencies
- 40% of the complainants have already lost their jobs
- The average length of employment of those with terminated contracts is 6 months
- 40% of the complainants were made to pay more than HK$20,000
- 86% of the complainants were made to pay more than HK$10,000
In Hong Kong, even though a policy that set the ceiling (10% of the first month’s salary) for the amount agencies can collect is in place, weaknesses and loopholes in its implementation has kept unscrupulous recruiters, moneylenders and employers free from prosecution and the problems of migrants with them to persist.
These weaknesses and loopholes include the premium that the Employment Agency Administration (EAA) puts on evidences like receipts before they accept a complaint of overcharging whereas they have already been informed of the practice of non-issuance of receipts by erring recruiters and moneylenders; the six-month statutory barrier that make lots of complaints inadmissible; and, their very low record of conviction of overcharging agencies that discourages victims who otherwise may want to file a case.
Harassments of collecting agents also happen in Hong Kong. While these are reported, there’s a tendency to have the report dismissed because of the supposed “personal loan” that FDWs have actually been forced to take and is actually fraudulent.
The lack of effective redress mechanisms in Hong Kong compounds the problem with recruitment agencies that start from the recruitment of the FDWs in their home country.
In recent months, there has been a marked increase in the number of Filipino domestic workers complaining against recruitment and moneylending agencies. Case in point, the number of Filipino migrants who approached the Mission from March to April doubled from an average of 23 complainants per Sunday to an average of 49. It even tripled by June to an average of 65 actual filed cases on Sundays alone! These are included among the hundreds that come to our office just for inquiries, with one Sunday to have recorded more than 200 migrants!
In their case, Philippine government policies stipulate that no placement fee should be charged to departing domestic workers. However, through various modus operandi, recruitment and moneylending agencies get away with charging Filipino domestic workers from HK$2,300 to HK$33,000. The average fee they pay is around HK$17,500.
They are made to pay for “training fees” and other vague charges that are collected from them through different methods such as forcing them to take out loans and getting the money immediately, forcing them to issue post-dated cheques, or salary deduction.
The complaints received by the Mission between Jaunary to June 2013 so far involved 178 recruitment agencies based in the Philippines and an astounding 243 agencies based in Hong Kong!
Even the so-called members of the Society of Hong Kong Accredited Recruiters of the Philippines (SHARP) who boast the non-collection of placement fees are included among them. Eighteen out of these 52 SHARP members have already been reported by our clients to have charged them illegally in violation of the no-placement fee regulation under the Philippine guidelines.
ABC Manpower Agency, Altima Manpower Agency, Inc., and Trendz International Manpower Service, Inc. were the agencies in the Philippines with the most number of complaints. Meanwhile, Overseas Employment Agency, Sunlight Agency and Get Maid Agency were the top three among the HK-based agencies.
Meanwhile, the options for redress and restitution that Philippine government offers either does not resolve the problem from its roots or is prohibitive for complainants to take.
The Philippine Consulate General mainly offers the “hands-on conciliation” process for complaints against recruitment agencies. While this gives immediate relief to complainants if the outcome is favourable to the migrant worker, this also leaves erring recruiters free from further prosecution that allows them to victimize others and recoup whatever they pay back to the complainants.
If the complainant decides to pursue a case in the Philippines, the complainant has to jump through a lot of bureaucratic hoops for the case to be resolved.
The time it takes for the Philippine authorities in Hong Kong to set up the conciliation process as well the time it takes for the case to prosper in the Philippines gives a window of opportunity for hired collectors of recruitment and moneylending agencies to harass the migrant worker to the point of termination of her employment, and even threaten their families back home.
With the formation of Tigil Na!, the problem of illegal, abusive and exploitative practices of recruitment and moneylending agencies should be seen as an urgent and widespread concern that must be addressed both by the Hong Kong government and especially by the Philippine government.
The Mission for Migrant Workers (MFMW) as an NGO advocate that assists migrants in distress stands firmly with Tigil Na! (End Now!) and all Filipino migrant organizations calling for redress to victims of unscrupulous recruiters and moneylenders as well as for the return of direct hiring that can possibly alleviate the problem. We shall continue to provide the assistance sorely needed by the victims as well as pursue avenues for advocacy that can help advance the call not only of Filipino domestic workers but all migrants in Hong Kong that are in a similar condition.