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Students condemn overcharging by job agencies

16 May 2017

Filipina SAFE member Kathleen Magramo
says the undercover operation caught most targeted
Hong Kong employment agencies charging excessive
placement fees.
By Vir B. Lumicao

A group of students has called for tighter regulation of Hong Kong’s 1,300 employment agencies and criminalization of their illegal activities, saying it has gathered evidence showing migrant helpers are charged placement fees 25 times above the legal limit.

The call was made by the Students Against Fees and Exploitation (SAFE) during a forum held on May 11 at the University of Hong Kong, where it disclosed findings of undercover investigations it conducted on over 100 agencies since October 2016.

Human rights lawyer Patricia Ho who was a guest speaker at the forum said she would look at the evidence later, which apparently show that many local agencies are engaging in forced labor and human trafficking.

Another guest, ex-legislator Emily Lau, urged the Hong Kong government to criminalize agency malpractices. She also said Filipinos here should lobby President Rodrigo Duterte to crack down on agencies in the Philippines that initiate overcharging, migrant worker exploitation and human trafficking.

Guest speakers Emily Lau and Patricia Ho
at the forum of the Students against Fees and Exploitation.
Tiffany Chan, a member of SAFE, told The SUN most Hong Kong employers are not aware their maids are being treated illegally by agencies, so, there is a need to educate them about this breach of the law.

Ho, a partner at solicitors firm Daly and Associates, said the findings showed agencies are exploiting the domestic workers who are vulnerable, “and it is the minority vulnerable ones that we protect and it’s the agents that we shall bring to justice.”

Citing international definition, she said: “If a party recruits, receives and then, by use of deception or abuse of a traditional vulnerability or gets payment to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person for the purpose of exploitation, that’s human trafficking.

“And, if the domestic helpers are held in debt bondage as they often are, and they have their passports retained by their employers or agents, and they are being taken advantage of, for example, they work excessive hours and in poor condition, then that forced labor.”  

Lau, a rights advocate, said it is a disgrace that a wealthy city like Hong Kong cannot criminalize and impose harsher punishment on rogue agencies.

The government is going to make the Code of Practice a law to give it more teeth, and public consultations will begin next month, Lau said. She urged those in the forum to send in their recommendations and comments so these could be considered by LegCo.

SAFE member Kathleen Magramo, who introduced the project dubbed “Exposing Hong Kong’s Employment Agency Black Market” said, “There is one black market that continues to exist in Hong Kong and that is the employment agency black market”.

She said SAFE observed that Hong Kong has 1,300 employment agencies, “exceeding the total number of Starbucks, Macdonald’s and 7-11s combined” and mostly operating in alleyways without signage and old buildings like a black market.

The investigations observed that most of the agencies targeted by members, posing as either employers or workers, “openly expressed charging illegal placement fee”.

“The investigation therefore puts into question the accuracy of government investigations … that consistently passed a low number of prosecutions,” Magramo said.

As of January 2017, only 12 of the 1,300 agencies listed by the Employment Agencies Administration had been prosecuted for charging illegal fees, she said.

Magramo, a Hong Kong-born Filipina and third-year economics student, said many agencies engage in fraudulent activities, like causing a maid’s pay to be delayed, or prodding an employer “to hire a new worker so you could train her better”.

So, if the helper underperforms, the employer fires her and pays the agency again to hire a replacement.

“As a result, employment agencies make overcharged business over and over again,” she said, likening it to a black market that has existed for the past 30 years.

Agencies “continued to charge illegal and excessive fees that on average were up to 25 times more than the legal limit, yet the government continues to gloss over this issue,” she said.

She called government moves like the passing of a Code of Practice for Employment Agencies in January as mere distractions.

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