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Agency fined for overcharging faces flood of complaints

15 April 2016

By Vir B. Lumicao

A recruitment agency at the center of complaints of overcharging by dozens of  Filipina domestic helpers was convicted and fined $7,000 at Kowloon court on Jan 20 for charging excessive fees from a job-seeker.
Ka Ying Employment Agency Ltd. was also ordered to refund the excessive placement fee of $2,089 charged to the foreign domestic helper, whose nationality was not given.
Meanwhile, acting on the complaints of 78 Filipino workers against Ka Ying, the Philippines’ Acting Labor attaché Nena German, told The SUN on Jan 19 that she had suspended the agency’s accreditation. But she steadfastly declined to name the agency, saying investigations were still ongoing.
However, a subsequent visit to the agency’s office at Kowloon Plaza in Cheung Sha Wan on Jan. 24 showed that it continued to recruit workers. A new Filipina recruit who was at the office told The SUN she had just paid $2,000 to the agency for getting her a new employer.
Under Hong Kong laws, placement agencies are allowed to collect only 10% of the worker’s first month’s salary, or $410 in the case of foreign domestic workers.
Philippine laws, on the other hand, provide that no placement fee shall be collected from any Filipino deployed abroad as a “household service worker”.
When asked to comment about the charges, Ka Ying owner Ellen Wong declined to talk, supposedly on lawyer’s advice. “Sorry I no talk to you according my lawyer, but I am good heart,” she told The SUN.
In two complaint letters sent to Consul General Bernardita Catalla in early December, the Filipino helpers recruited by Ka Ying all named Ellen Wong and her husband as being behind the collection of the excessive fees.
The complainants provided documents purportedly showing the illegal fees camouflaged as loans taken out by the helper from either the lending firm Conex Services (HK) Ltd, a certain Wong Hiu-yung (Ellen Wong’s Chinese name), or her husband Wong Chung-lam.
“(Wong) collects a total of $7,500 from each of us helpers without any receipt and not following the Hong Kong law,” the complainants said.
The helpers said they were all taken to Conex upon their arrival in Hong Kong to make purported personal loans which, in reality, were all collected by Ellen Wong as payment for the illicit fees.
They also accused Wong of collecting an “advance deposit of $2,500 or less depending on our cash on hand” from each applicant upon signing of their contract, but issued no receipt.
They were then allegedly made to sign a document authorizing their employers to deduct $2,500 each from their salaries for two months “as payment for their balance fee” to Ka Ying’s partner in Manila, the Mariz Manpower Services on Pedro Gil St., Manila.
The helpers said that on top of these charges, they were each required by Mariz Manpower to pay a placement fee of Php23,000 and a training fee of Php9,000.
The helpers supported their complaint with a volume of documents, including a schedule of fees for three categories of job applicants, namely, “local terminate and break contract”, “overseas helper,” and “local finish contract worker”.
The documents also included an undertaking that Ka Ying allegedly made them sign, in which they promised to hand over their passports to their employers, which is prohibited by both Hong Kong and Philippine laws.
The document also made the helpers affirm that 1) they did not pay any money to Ka Ying; and 2) that they would not take the days off for the first two months and instead spend those days in the Ka Ying officers for “work improvement” and “proper guidance and advices morally, mentally and psychologically”.
Since they lodged the complaint, the helpers said they or their employers had been approached by Wong even at midnight, offering to pay them cash if they withdrew their complaint.
A copy of the “Affidavit of Quitclaim and Desistance” allegedly provided by Wong and furnished to The SUN provides that in consideration of an amount not specified, the claimant was waiving all rights to sue Ka Ying ang Mariz in any administrative body, tribunal or court arising from their overseas employment.
The signatories are also made to agree that no force or intimidation was used to make them sign the quitclaim.
Most of the complainants have reportedly refused to sign the document, but at least one of them who claimed her employer had been talking to Wong has been terminated.
Mary Grace dela Cruz told The SUN in a telephone interview before she flew back to the Philippines on Jan 26 that she was fired on Jan 16 and told to leave on the same day. She got her month’s pay in lieu of notice, her unpaid salary and vacation leave, plane ticket and $100 travel allowance.
During a brief chat she obliged The SUN on Jan. 19, German said the complaint against Ka Ying and Mariz – both of which she did not mention by name –  had already been endorsed by her office to Hong Kong’s Labour Department and the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration.
A further check revealed that the action was taken only the day before, or more than a month since the initial complaint signed by more than 50 helpers had been made.
It turned out that a day before this, Ka Yin had sought to arrange a conciliation meeting with the complainants, during which Wong was supposed to pay $5,000 cash to each of them in exchange for the complaint being withdrawn.
But the deal fell through, reportedly because Wong only offered to pay $2,000 cash and $3,000 in cheque, to each complainant.
The attempt at conciliation was allegedly communicated to German, who reportedly declined to let the negotiations take place at the Philippine Overseas Labor Office, but waited to see if a deal would be struck.

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