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Risks faced by FDWs in online business

21 October 2018

By Cynthia Tellez

You will notice on Facebook or other social media the engagement of some migrant domestic workers in business ventures. They offer different items and sometimes even with prices and information on how to contact them. We understand the necessity of having extra income to augment the low salary. We also understand how prices have soared because of the high inflation rate in our country so much so that our previous remittance to our family is no longer sufficient. Even in Hong Kong where we spend part of our income, prices of basic commodities are also getting higher.

But there are things that foreign domestic workers must bear in mind to stay away from any untoward incidents that might affect their stay in Hong Kong.

First of all, all foreign workers in Hong Kong who are on employment visa are subject to conditions of stay. The “conditions of stay” provide that foreign workers are only allowed to work with a specific employer or a specific company. But such conditions are more restrictive in the cases of foreign domestic workers who are governed by the “New Conditions of Stay” which took effect in 1987. These restrictions include what is commonly known as the “two-week rule”, which mandates that a migrant worker can remain in Hong Kong for only 14 days upon termination of the employment contract. The visas issued to foreign domestic workers also bear the name of their employers as specified in the employment contract. They are only allowed to work with that employer in the specific address stated in the contract and must live in that same address.

In addition, all workers subjected to conditions of stay can only do the work stated when they applied for a visa or permit to work in Hong Kong. For example, foreign domestic worker can only do domestic work, in the same way that architects or engineers are bound to only do what they applied for at the Immigration Department. You cannot engage in other types of work, otherwise, it will be a violation of your conditions of stay. Prior permission must be sought from the Immigration Department for any work-related changes.

Our compatriots working as domestic workers are thus advised to avoid violating their conditions of stay as in the following examples:
• Doing part-time domestic work outside of the employer’s address. These include the houses/flats of your employer’s relatives or other houses owned by the employer that are not stated in the employment contract;
• Working in business premises, even if it’s owned by your employer;
• Selling phone cards or other items; and,
• All other kinds of work outside of what’s stated in the employment contract filed with the Immigration Department.

Now, let us discuss the internet or online business that many migrant domestic workers are now engaged in.

There are times when we see online advertisements for business opportunities offered by companies. These are very enticing advertisements as they promise you an income in the thousands of dollars in a short period of time. All that the interested parties are supposed to do is to get the items, maybe on consignment basis, and sell or market them to friends and fellow migrants.

Many are lured to apply because it would seem your household duties will not be affected because you could sell the items on social media only during your spare time. The advertisements say all you need to do is to multiply your followers on social media so you gain a captive market. You don’t have to pay for advertising your product because it’s free on social media, especially on Facebook.

Unless there is a complaint against the item or product you sold, you will not encounter problems. All you need to sort out is the manner of payment. Once you get this out of the way, all should be smooth sailing. You’re not out there physically selling items, anyway, so you could not be accused of doing illegal work. At least, that’s what you are made to believe.

But you should remember that social media is open to most people, even if you’re selling in a “closed” or “secret” group because practically anyone who applies as a member is accepted. These are virtual marketplaces so keeping the site secret will defeat the purpose of people joining it for their online businesses.

Here is where your vulnerability lies.  So, you might want to seriously consider the following:
1 For any foreign worker in Hong Kong who is subject to conditions of stay, it is close to impossible to apply for any business permit for it will violate the conditions of stay. Prior consent of the Immigration Department to engage in business outside of the current permit of work is needed. So, in case a business permit is needed before you can operate your online business, it will be difficult to secure one. If it is not needed, then you passed the first step.
2) In case no business permit is needed, you should be very sure that the items or products you are selling are not banned or restricted in Hong Kong, like cosmetic items that are not approved for sale by relevant government agencies;
3) Even if you pass the two above-mentioned matters, there is a third condition that could be the most difficult. Permit or no permit, the Immigration Department is very strict on the matter of workers breaching the very specific and restrictive conditions attached to their visas. Foremost of these is the restriction against engaging in any other kind of work, be it fulltime or part-time, paid or unpaid, other than that what is mentioned in the contract or the application submitted to the Immigration Department.

Migrant domestic workers who do online businesses, once detected by the proper authorities, especially by the Immigration Department, could be prosecuted accordingly. It does not matter if the employer gave permission to the worker to engage in such a business because it is the Immigration Department which has the sole power to determine whether you are in breach of the conditions of stay. If the authorities find that you breached these conditions, they will decide whether to initiate prosecution, or removal proceedings, meaning you will be asked to leave Hong Kong. In addition, you could be banned from returning to Hong Kong for a period of time.

As we said at the beginning, we understand why our migrant workers engage in extra work to earn more money. But you might want to consider the possible outcomes for this contract violation as enumerated above, then weigh if he additional income is worth the risk of being prosecuted or barred from Hong Kong.

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This is the monthly column from the Mission for Migrant Workers, an institution that has been serving the needs of migrant workers in Hong Kong for over 31 years. The Mission, headed by its general manager, Cynthia Tellez, assists migrant workers who are in distress, and  focuses its efforts on crisis intervention and prevention through migrant empowerment. Mission has its offices at St John’s Cathedral on Garden Road, Central, and may be reached through tel. 2522 8264.

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