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Policy reforms, not agency code, to curb abuse: FDH group

14 April 2016

Support organizations for foreign domestic helpers have slammed a plan by the Hong Kong Labour Department to craft a code of practice for employment agencies, aimed at curbing abuse and malpractice.
Dolores Balladares-Pelaez
Labour and Welfare Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung mentioned the plan to  draw up a code for agencies in a blog he posted on Dec. 20 on the Labour Department's website. He said all stakeholders, including FDH unions, will be consulted once the draft is completed by the end of the first quarter of 2016.
But FDH rights groups reacted cooly to the news, saying policy reforms, and not a “non-binding” code for agencies, are needed to give better protection to migrant workers. They insisted that government policies such as the forced live-in arrangement and non-regulated work hours are to blame for much of the abuse against FDHs.
Dolores Balladares-Pelaez, chairperson of United Filipinos in Hong Kong (Unifil-Migrante) said policy reform “is crucial because it is the Hong Kong government’s own policies that indirectly encourage employers to maltreat their domestic workers.”                                                                                            
 She cited in particular the forced live-in policy, which she said makes domestic workers “vulnerable to all sorts of abuse because there is no one who can bear witness for the helper about what happens inside the house.”
However, Cheung said in his blog that “the overwhelming majority of Hong Kong employers treat their FDHs well, and most FDHs enjoy a harmonious relationship with their employers.
“Unfortunately, it takes only a few black sheep to tarnish the image of our whole community and undo our good work," he said.
In the latest case of such abuse, a 25-year-old Filipina maid was allegedly burned on her back with a hot flat iron by her elderly employer in Mei Foo Sun Chuen on Dec 12.
Other horrific cases of abuse have been reported in Hong Kong over the years, with the most publicized being the case of Indonesian Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, who could barely walk when her employer tried to send her back home in 2014. The employer, Law Wan-tung, was jailed for six years in February this year for her cruel abuse of Erwiana
The case, said Cheung, cast Hong Kong in a bad light. The code of practice that the Labour Department plans to issue is said to be intended to avoid further embarrassment relating to local employers’ treatment of foreign helpers.
Cheung said tighter regulation of recruitment agencies has already been enforced, with more inspections being carried out at these firms over the past year. The inspections have gone up to 1,800 per year, compared with the 1,300 in previous years, a 38% increase.
He said with more FDHs reporting cases of abuse and malpractices, and then acting as prosecution witnesses, 12 agencies (including nine for overcharging job-seekers) had been successfully prosecuted so far in 2015, compared with only four in 2014.   “LD (Labour Department) will continue to take stringent enforcement actions against EAs which violate the laws,” he said.
Employers have not been spared. According to Cheung, the department secured  12 convictions against FDH employers for offenses under the Employment Ordinance, with one employer being sentenced to four months in jail and fined $10,000.
Pelaez was, however, not impressed. She said Hong Kong must also end its policy of exclusion and discrimination of foreign domestic workers, adding that the government has always excluded FDHs from wage increase and work hours legislation.
Two weeks ago, Cheung told a Legislative Council committee that the government is studying a proposal to regulate working hours for local workers, but made no mention of domestic helpers, most of whom work 16-18 hours a day. “Talagang yung exclusion, yung discrimination, makikita mo. Yung gobyerno ang nagtutulak, so yung ginagawa ng mga mamamayan, maiintindihan mo rin,,” Pelaez said. — with a report by Vir B. Lumicao

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