Stories of nine care-workers from Zhanjiang exposed - Exploitation of “supplementary slaves”

Exploitations of workers at elderly care homes have created much anger last June.  Nine workers from Zhanjiang, China, have been working in elderly care homes under the worst conditions such as illegal overdue salaries, working and living in the same elderly care home, and round-the-clock working hours to serve the elderly who have lost temporal perception.   The nine care-workers from Zhanjiang who worked at the Wing Kwong Care Home for the Elderly have had enough years of exploitation and decided to fight back.  With the assistance of the unions, they left the elderly care home and their position by “dismissal in disguise” on 14 June, and exposed the exploitive migrant worker system to the Hong Kong Society.

It has been more than two months since Ms Wong left the eldlery care home.  She has survived more than eight years in Wing Kwong, she has just sent her son to the university and her youngest daughter is just 10.   Even so, she and other eight care-workers decided that they have had enough and would have no more exploitation by Wing Kwong.

For years, migrant worker coming to Hong Kong through the Supplementary Labour Scheme were under manipulations by the elderly care homes and agents, and the Standard Employment Contract was merely an unmonitored paper.  The care-workers from Zhanjiang, found themselves strangers in Hong Kong, endured all the maltreatment, even they knew that the elderly care home were not following the contract terms.  Ms Wong has worked for nine years in a factory in Shenzhen, and thought that she could save some money as the job at elderly care home in Hong Kong provided accommodation and food.  She never expected that she would be trapped in such difficult situation in Hong Kong.

Standard Employment Contract is compulsory for all grassroots migrant worker coming to Hong Kong through the Supplementary Labour Scheme, and is monitored by the Labour Department Supplementary Labour Division.  Despite the fact that Hong Kong does not have legislation on standard working hours, this basic contract stipulates the maximum working hours to nine hours per day and over-time work should be paid.  According to the contract, salary would not be lower than median salary of local workers of the same positions.  The favourable terms of the contract are very attractive to migrant worker. 

However, contract terms and the reality were different.  For years, Ms Wong worked for 14-hour shift both day and night, which was extremely exhaustive.  According to the contract, the employer has to provide residence to workers, but Ms Wong’s “residence” was in the same building of the elderly care home, making her isolated from the community.  As for food, she was only given the same light meals of the elderly people. 

Crowdedness and poor conditions of elderly care homes were infamous in Hong Kong and most people only consider private elderly care homes as the last resort.  Migrant workers who cared for the elderly for Hong Kong were also facing similar adverse conditions, but with no one to care about them.

Who sold them to Hong Kong?

Migrant workers came to Hong Kong mostly because of poor financial status back home, and also because the love for their families.   Besides financial factors, formal and informal systems provided conditions for the care-workers to come all the way from Zhanjiang to Hong Kong.

Who are “selling” them in Hong Kong?  In Ms Wong’s case, we could observe how the mal-practicing agents and employers abused the procedures of Supplementary Labour Scheme to provide low-cost migrant workers for the elderly care homes.   In 2010, introduced by a Mr Lee from Fujian, Ms Wong got to know a Mr Cheung from Hong Kong who claimed to be able to find a job for her.  Mr Lee told her that the monthly salary was more than HK$7,000 and she would receive HK$5,000 after paying HK$2,000 “rebate” per month.  On top of that, she has to pay 10% of the monthly salary for her food and HK$3,600 for “agency fee” after one year. 

Salaries of workers at eldlery care homes has increased with the implementation of minimum wage, so as the amount of “rebate”.  In 2015 – 2016, their monthly salary was raised to HK$10,000, but the amount of “rebate” also increased to HK$3,000.  Adding the HK$4,000 “agency fee”, workers lost HK$40,000 and only earned HK$80,000 per year.  The loss has not yet included the salary of leave days which the employers deducted unlawfully.

According to other care-workers who left Wing Kwong with Ms Wong, they joined the elderly care home later than Ms Wong, after paying “Mr Cheung” RMB$21,000 with borrowed money, and they had to pay HK$5,000 as “rebate” to the employer for the first four months.  The “agency fee” totaled HK$40,000, and no one knows how “Mr Cheung” and Wing Kwong split the amount.

Wing Kwong looked for female workers in Guangdong Province through agent “Mr Cheung”, and they colluded to collect huge amount of agency fee.  They disregarded the Standard Employment Contract and rights of workers and exploited the workers in debt.   As the number of supplementary workers increased with the aging population, the extensive network of unlawful agents is a huge human-trafficking business for the owner of Wing Kwong who owns numerous elderly care homes.

The US Department of State’s “Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report 2018” continued to categorized Hong Kong in the Tier 2 Watch List, as evidence showed that Hong Kong is both a destination and an entrepot of human-trafficking.  Statistics of 2018 Global Slavery Index also estimated that at least 1,000 persons are “living in modern slavery” in Hong Kong. The migrant worker mechanism categorized workers as low and lower grades and forced them into debt and made them vulnerable to human-trafficking.

The struggles of Zhanjiang workers are still going on.  As Wing Kwong was not willing to sit down at the mediation table, the workers have filed the case with Labour Tribunal and determined to take Wing Kwong to the court.

 

Journal of Labour Actions

Date

Event

14 June

Nine migrant workers have suffered exploitation of the elderly care home and sought assistance from the union.  The workers reported “dismissal in disguise” by Wing Kwong and left their positions immediately.  The workers and the union publicly denounced Wing Kwong for exploiting the workers, including withholding salary, sub-standard leave days, and over-charging agency fee, etc.    

15 June

The care-workers and the union protested and camped in front of the Government Offices and requested intervention from the Government.  Their action has revealed the fact that migrant workers have no refuge when facing exploitation by employers.  The HKCTU later activated the Labour Rights Fund to support their accommodation expenses while staying in Hong Kong to file their complaints.

16 June

Wing Kwong’s lawyer issued letters to the nine care-workers, claiming that they have violated the contract for leaving their work positions, and requesting their return to the position.

17 June

Nine workers joined the foreign domestic workers in solidarity at the International Domestic Workers’ Day activity organized by HKCTU affiliate FADWU.

June

Civil groups organized publicity teams and distributed leaflets on Wing Kwong’s deeds to workers, family members of the elderly, and residents in the community in front of a number of Wing Kwong elderly care homes, and requested Wing Kwong to take responsibilities of violation of labour laws and inhumane treatment of migrant workers.

18 – 25 June

The union and the workers filed complaints with Labour Department Supplementary Labour Division and Occupation Agent Affairs Division respectively, and appealed for public support.  The Labour Department tried to arrange mediation meetings, but Wing Kwong refused to attend any of the meetings.

26 June

Filed a complaint with the UN Migration Agency on Wing Kwong’s exploitation and forced labour.  The Migration Agency released HK$1,000 subsidy to each of the workers.

July

The workers filed a case with the Labour Tribunal and brought the case into legal procedure, and pursuit their claim against Wing Kwong.