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Nearly all HK agencies ignore Code of Practice

29 June 2018

By Vir B. Lumicao

More than a year since the Code of Practice for Employment Agencies was introduced by the Hong Kong government, nearly all industry players continue to violate it, a new research reveals.

According to a report published on Jun 17 by the HK Federation of Asian Domestic Workers (FADWU), the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions and Rights Exposure,  96% of all agencies did not comply with key provisions in the CoP.

The findings of the study titled “Agents of Change: Assessing Agency Compliance with the Code of Practice,” were based on a survey of 453 foreign domestic workers between July last year and March this year.

The findings were reportedly backed up by undercover video recordings in 18 agencies surveyed.

The report highlights that the vast majority of the 1,436 licensed agencies in Hong Kong violate the Code with impunity.

Foremost of these breaches was the charging of illegal fees, with 57% of the agencies allegedly asking the workers to pay agency fees averaging $9,013, the report said. That is more than 20 times the 10% of a worker’s first monthly salary as prescribed by law.

The research cited that 222 or 57% of the 389 newly arrived workers interviewed said they had been charged illegal fees. Of this group, 132 paid through salary deduction. 

Some 30% or 136 out of 449 interviewees claimed they were made to pay by the agencies even before they received their first monthly salary, the report said.

The Code specifies that the workers should pay the legal fee only after receiving their first monthly salary. Agencies that violate the law are liable to a fine of $350,000 and imprisonment of three years.

Different numbers of interviewees have been cited in the report as responding to particular questions, as not all them answered all the questions either because they could not recall or the questions were not relevant to their situation, according to the research.

The interviews were conducted by FADWU in collaboration with the Indonesian group Komunitas Buruh Migran-HK to check on agency compliance with the CoP, which was introduced in January 2017.

The research was presented at the launch by Ruth Arceta of FADWU, Iis of KOBUMI, Ann Olsen, gender and migration specialist of the International Labor Organization, and Labour Party legislator Fernando Cheung.

The research, which was supported by ILO, also examined the Code’s impact on the human and labor rights of domestic workers in Hong Kong.

“Non-compliance with the Code of Practice is not confined to a few rogue agencies, but is rather a widespread problem throughout Hong Kong,” Phobusk Gasing, chairperson of KOBUMI, said at the launch.

“Our research documents that 148 agencies – 10% of the total number –violated one or more aspects of the Code,” she said.

A video presentation of the report said 74% of Hong Kong agencies used by the interviewees did not fully comply with four or more key standards.

The report said that 31% of those interviewed claimed the agencies did not tell them accurately the nature of their jobs in Hong Kong, including the terms and conditions of their employment and the high cost of securing it.

A video of the report said of the 18 agencies that charged placement fees, seven charged jobseekers $3,500 to $10,000, or 8 to 24 times the legal limit. Six agencies said they would charge applicants a deposit.

“I’m happy to find you a new employer, but you need to go to Macau. Wait for the visa. You need to pay $6,500,” a woman with a blurred face told a volunteer who posed as a job seeker.

Last year, the Labour Department successfully prosecuted 11 agencies for breaking the law and issued stern warnings to 19 others for non-compliance with the Code.

Gasing said many agencies know they can largely ignore the Code and continue to follow illegal business practices because they do not fear reprisals. The domestic workers, in turn, have no choice but to go along with the agencies.

The report also revealed that agencies continue to hold the passports of migrant workers. in violation of the law.

“Unless the Labour Department strengthens its monitoring and inspection systems, and effectively investigates and punishes non-compliant employment agencies, the Code of Practice will remain toothless and ineffectual in protecting the rights of migrant domestic workers,” Gasing said. 

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