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06 July 2017

By Daisy Catherine L. Mandap

Rogue is a word often used with employment agencies nowadays. When someone is called a rogue, it means that person is no good, a mischief maker.

It’s the same with many agencies. There are rogue ones who do every trick in the book to make money – often at the expense of our already overly burdened migrant workers. These are the ones who bleed their recruits dry with their outrageously high placement fees, then cause them further grief by not extending help when the worker is abused by the employer.

After decades of complaints against the long-standing collection of placement fees, the Hong Kong government is finally taking action. A bill that provides a jail term, as well as a sevenfold increase in the penalty for agencies that overcharge their recruits, has already been gazetted and will be soon taken up by the legislative council.

Not only will violators face a maximum fine of $350,000 from the current $50,000, they could also go to jail for up to three years.

Our hope now is that more errant agencies will be brought to court and properly penalized for squeezing our workers dry. As it is, only about a dozen cases are prosecuted each year by the Labour Department, a pathetically small number, given a recent study by a group of intrepid students from the University of Hong Kong which revealed that a whopping 70% of employment agencies charge migrants excessive fees.

A look at past cases also shows that even those who were hauled to court got off with just a mere slap on the wrist. A glaring example was Satisfactory agency in Tai Wai which was fined a measly $3,000 for each case where it charged the worker $21,000 two years ago. Worse, the agency was given 20 months to pay the fines and 18 months to return the workers’ money.

Still, the case is nothing compared to the recent one involving Emry’s Employment Agency, in which hundreds of Filipino workers who applied for non-existent jobs in Canada and Britain were each charged between $10,000 to $15,000. More than a year since the scam was carried out, Labour has yet to prosecute the agency’s owners, the police continue to refuse to investigate the victim’s fraud complaint, and the money claims totaling about $3 million are still stuck in the Small Claims Tribunal.

No wonder that migrant support groups had long lobbied for violators to be thrown in jail, instead of just being ordered to pay measly fines.

The government first sought to address the issue when it released a detailed Code of Conduct for Employment Agencies at the start of the year. But this was met with widespread criticism, as the code was non-binding.

With the significant increase in penalties for those that still flout the law, the government appears to have finally faced up to the reality that self-policing does not work for recruiters that continue to make money from the sweat of migrant workers.

But again, it must be emphasized that tougher penalties won’t stick unless they come with strict, serious enforcement. This is the only way to end the scourge that has caused untold suffering to thousands of migrants who continue to flock to Hong Kong in hopes of a better life.

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