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Jail terms, hefty fines eyed vs. rogue agencies

03 July 2017

By Daisy CL Mandap

Emry's has been one of the biggest cases.
The government has proposed to criminalize the offences of overcharging job seekers and running unlicensed employment agencies. On top of a possible jail term, the maximum fine for violators will also be raised seven-fold.

The proposals are contained in the Employment (Amendment) (No.2) Bill 2017 which was gazetted on June 16 and tabled for debate at the Legislative Council on June 28.

Under the proposed amendment, the maximum penalty for the two offences will be a fine of $350,000 (from the present $50,000) and imprisonment for up to three years.

A government press statement said, “The Labour Department said the bill will better protect job seekers, especially foreign domestic helpers who come to Hong Kong to work for the first time”.

It added, “The bill will also provide a stronger deterrent to employment malpractices.”

Migrant workers welcomed the proposed legislative amendment, but said there should be also be a stricter enforcement of the law.

“Fines are not enough. Imprisonment should be imposed on those committing this serious offense,” said Eman Villanueva, secretary general of United Filipinos – Migrante Hong Kong.

He said his group had long lobbied for the criminalization of overcharging and collection of illegal fees by agencies, as this seemed to be the only way to ensure that they followed the law.

Other migrant support organizations have long echoed the call, backed up by data that showed the wide extent of the problem of overcharging and carrying out illicit recruitment activities.

One of these, the Mission for Migrant Workers, has consistently published surveys showing gross agency violations, topped by excessive fee collection. In its latest report released in April, the Mission found that only 4% of the helpers paid the legal fee of 10% of their first monthly salary, which under current pay levels, should not be more than $431. More than half of those surveyed said they paid between $5,000 and $10,000 while an alarming 21% were charged more than $15,000.

Last month, a group from the University of Hong Kong calling itself “Students Against Fees and Exploitation” unveiled the results of a seven-month undercover work targeting employment agencies. Their study revealed that more than 70% of employment agencies charge domestic workers excessive fees.

Despite the apparent magnitude of the problem, only a handful of employment agencies are prosecuted by the Labour Department. In the first six months of this year, only three agencies were taken to court, and for the whole of last year, only eight prosecutions were carried out.

The maximum penalty imposed by the court in these cases was a fine of $30,000, by far a significant amount compared with those imposed on other violators in recent years.

The head of Hong Kong Union of Employment Agencies, Thomas Chan, said his group welcomed the government’s new initiatives, but thinks there are other violations that should also be addressed.

“As an association for accredited agencies, we always promote fair treatment to workers and employers as well. We encourage our members to follow the rules and regulations of HK government regarding so called placement fee,” Chan said.

However, he said his group thinks the government is not focusing on the whole picture, but only on certain issues like overcharging.

He suggested that stricter penalties be imposed also on “sub-agents” who use the names or “chops” of agencies accredited with the consulates in committing violations.

The government’s initiative follows the introduction of a non-binding code of conduct for agencies in January.

The code spells out the minimum standards required of licensees, including transparency in their business operation, drawing up service agreements with job seekers and employers, issuing receipts, and staying out of workers’ financial activities, including taking out loans.

The government warned of taking tougher actions if no improvements are seen within two years after the code was issued.

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