Policies Relating to Migrant Domestic Workers and Regulations of Employment Agencies”
Submission to the Legislative Council Panel on Manpower
(Special Meeting 21 February 2014)
by The Federation of Asian Domestic Workers Unions and
The Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions on
“Policies Relating to Migrant Domestic Workers and Regulations of Employment Agencies”
Erwiana’s case has raised concern in the local community regarding the life situation of migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong. It has also drawn attention to respective government policies as well as the severe exploitation employment agencies have had on these workers. It has been the ignoring attitude of the government that has rendered Hong Kong “the city of modern slavery”. In fact, cases of serious abuse are never new in Hong Kong. However, the government has always turned a deaf ear and allowed itself to drift along without learning any lesson or making any change to its policies. We believe the ordeal of Erwiana is not a case of exception. It reflects rather the predicaments of the domestic workers lacking help and support and is a situation that the government must look into.
The predicaments of the migrant domestic workers as revealed by Erwiana’s case are:
Although it is true that when the domestic workers first arrive in Hong Kong, the Immigration Department will give them information including Hong Kong laws etc. However, the information is often taken away by the staff of the employment agencies come to pick them up at the airport.
Some of the domestic workers who are new in Hong Kong (from countries including Indonesia, the Philippines and Bangladesh etc) would be taken to the loan companies. Arrangements will then be made for them to apply for loans. Despite not being given any money or receipt, these workers will be obliged to re-pay the money via the convenience stores with the salaries of their first four to six months of work. Today, debt bondage is known internationally as a form of slavery.
As a result of the repayment scheduled for the first six months, migrant domestic workers are often deterred from making any complaint against employers’ abuse or poor working conditions. In Erwiana’s case, in spite of her appeal for help, she was sent back to her employer’s by the employment agency simply because she still had debt to repay.
Although the Immigration Department requires the employers to fill in details of the accommodation they have for their domestic helpers, it seldom verifies if the employers’ claims are true. As a result, many domestic workers have to sleep in the toilets or closets.
Since domestic workers are obliged by law to live in with their employers, they do not have their own accommodation. If they complain about any abuse, they will risk losing their job as well as their lodging.
Many migrant domestic workers still encounter problems of salary deduction or not having a weekly rest day. However, they cannot complain for it. If they do so, they will lose their job and accommodation. While employment agencies are unwilling to get them new jobs, their intention to work and earn money in Hong Kong will be in vain.
When the Panel on Manpower discussed the agency fees payable by domestic workers on 18 June last year, we strongly called upon the government to regulate these agencies. However, the Labour Department was perfunctory in its reply. The issue was then casually put aside. In hindsight, it was about the same period of time when Erwiana was sent back to her employer by the agency. Had the government been more responsive to our concern at that time, Erwiana might have already been saved from such brutal abuse. If Hong Kong does not want to be branded again as “the city of modern slavery”, we urge the Labour and Welfare Bureau, the Security Bureau and the Immigration Department to defend the foreign domestic workers’ basic rights by adopting the following measures without further delay.
A. Set up tripartite meetings of labour, employers and government to formulate policies on foreign domestic workers
At present, there is a lack of transparency on policies relating to foreign domestic workers. Despite the uncovering of Erwiana’s case, the Labour Department and the Immigration Department continued to stay in a world of their own persuasion. They on one hand refused to meet with the labour unions, and on the other tried to muddle themselves through by proclaiming some oblivious policies. We would like to highlight that foreign domestic workers are not given any seat in the current official setups on labour issues, the Labour Advisory Board for instances.
The Labour Department should take reference from the other trades and industries and establish a tripartite mechanism that will engage labour unions, employers’ associations and the Labour Department for any policy draft. Not only will this enhance transparency, it will also serve as the channel to collect views of the unions.
(B) Regulate employment agencies
Labour Department officers should check whether the employments agencies have confiscated the passports of the foreign domestic workers when they inspect these agencies. Receipts issued to the workers regarding agency fees should also be examined to ensure that no overcharge has been made.
Strengthen the penalties for overcharge of agency fees and confiscation of workers’ passports by imposing license suspension and not just fines.
Upload names of the employment agencies onto the Labour Department’s website if complaints against them are proved valid by the Department, so that employers can choose the law-abiding agencies as informed consumers.
Investigate seriously cases in which domestic workers are forced to apply for loans upon their arrival in Hong Kong and made to re-pay within the first six months of work without them actually receiving any of the loan money. Check if these loan companies and employment agencies have conducted any commercial crimes.
Instead of relying on employment agencies’ regular “interviews of the workers”, the Labour Department should take initiatives to draw their own samplings and scrutinize the life situation of foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong. The employment agencies have for long turned a blind eye on the abuses suffered by the foreign domestic workers. Some of them have gone as far as to cheat the workers for their money. To count on them is rather putting the cart before the horse.
(C) Protecting the rights of foreign domestic workers
1. For migrant domestic workers to be familiar with their rights, the Immigration Department and the Labour Department should prepare a briefing session for the workers upon their first arrival in Hong Kong. The session should cover topics including Hong Kong law and the telephone numbers they would need for seeking help. It should be conducted in the language of the workers and with the presence of the union representatives (but not the employment agencies). Employer to the domestic worker should also be obliged to take course on labour rights and benefit. This is to ensure that both parties know their respective rights and duties.
2. To protect the complainant from being revenged by the employment agencies, the Labour Department officers should not give away the names of the worker(s) filing the complaint.
3. In where migrant domestic workers usually gather, the Victoria Park and Kowloon Park, for instances, space should be allocated for unions of the migrant domestic workers to set up booths to provide assistance and consultation services to workers in need.
(D) Provide support to abused foreign domestic workers
The government should financially sponsor unions or NGOs for migrant domestic workers to set up shelters with sufficient places and facilities. There should also be 24-hour hotlines for help to be operated in the different languages of the domestic workers.
21 February 2014
Federation of Asian Domestic Workers Unions
Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions