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Placement agency charges —for the Nth time

21 June 2018

By Cynthia Tellez

It is quite disheartening to have the chance to discuss this topic every now and then. We have noticed that migrant workers continuously approach the Mission for assistance for this kind of problem, most of them new arrivals. This means that the information drive in our home country about placement agency fees is not sufficient, if it is being done at all.

Our compatriots leaving the Philippines as household service workers, to any parts of the world including Hong Kong, should be reminded that by law, placement agencies are prohibited from charging placement fees. It is zero-agency-fees for household service workers (e.g. domestic workers, caregivers, caretakers).

As a matter of agreement, the Philippine government has established the Standard Employment
Contract (Contract) with Hong Kong. In the Contract , it is clearly stipulated that the expenses of processing the employment of a new domestic worker in Hong Kong should be shouldered by the employer. This includes the visa fee, plane fare, Philippine government mandatory fees such as the POEA and OWWA, and other requirements either from the government of both countries or by the prospective employer, including medical certificates and the like. (see Clause no. 8 of the Contract)

However, placement agencies in the Philippines have exploited the POEA policy of requiring assessment and training for applicants processing their contract application from the Philippines. The range of fees reported to the Mission alone is from PhP5,000 to PhP150,000! Unfortunately, there is NO standard fee to these two requirements. Placement agencies then have a way of charging their applicants to their heart’s desire. The common practice, therefore, is charging the applicants without issuing receipts or they may issue one but with only the “acceptable” amount written on it.

There are other schemes experienced and shared by migrant workers, such as agencies asking for a “facilitation fee” to supposedly expedite the issuance of a medical certificate by a medical clinic they know (of which some employers are skeptical so they require another medical examination when they arrive in Hong Kong). Some agencies also charge for the plane fare on the pretext that they had not yet received the plane ticket from the employer for the migrant worker’s travel. Indeed, there are many other ways and means that agencies use to extract money from their applicants.

But most of the victims of these unscrupulous agencies do not know anything about the no-placement-fee policy. Most are first timers, or even if they are former OFWs they are simply not aware of it because there is no sufficient and thorough information campaign on it from the POEA, which is supposed to enforce the policy.

If victimized, what can be done and what should be done when applying?
1. Have a good account of every step that you take while processing your employment contract application.
2. Keep a record of every single event, action, conversation and instructions every step of the way.  In other words, keep a diary and actively update it. You may share it with any of your relatives.
3. On your departure for Hong Kong, be sure to bring with you the receipts or any papers that the agency signed, or acknowledged, to prove the payments that you made, and most importantly, the written account of how things went during the process.
4. When already in Hong Kong, the earliest you can go to any service providers for consultation, the better. You will need their guidance on how to go about filing a claim for the illegal exaction of fees by your agency.
5. Remember this. If the illegal fee was recorded in the Philippines but the collection of money is happening in Hong Kong, it is better to refer the claims to the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO), an extension of the Philippine Labour Department based in Hong Kong, to stop it.
6. At POLO:
a) Present your statement explaining how the illegal exaction of fees happened. Even for those who were forced by circumstances to make a loan and the whole amount was taken by the agency, be sure that you have a good account of what happened You may need the assistance of any service providers to assist you in making your statement.
b) Submit the statement to POLO and ask them to assist you in claiming back the illegal fees collected from you by the agency and if applicable, waive the disputed “loan”.
c) A conciliation meeting might be scheduled. This meeting is between you and the agency representative with a POLO official serving as the arbiter and facilitator at the meeting. Hopefully, the claims are settled at this level.  This means that the agency should give you back the fees illegally collected from you because the agency in Hong Kong is equally responsible for any actions committed by the agency in the Philippines.
d) If the parties fail to reach a settlement at the meeting, you can be endorsed by the POLO official to the POEA in Manila.
e) We know how difficult the justice system in our country is, so let us take the extra step of lodging a complaint at the Hong Kong Labour Department’s Employment Agency Administration (EAA) against the illegal fees collected by the counterpart agency in Hong Kong. This is to record the illegal activities of the Hong Kong agency.
f) Meanwhile, when filing claims in the Philippines against the Philippine-based agency, you may need more assistance to hurdle the bureaucracy there. Let a service provider in Hong Kong, like the Mission, refer you to a service provider based in the Philippines. But make sure that you take note of what you need to prepare: get an Endorsement letter to POEA from POLO and make a Special Power of Attorney naming a person whom you are authorizing to file the claims and to further represent you at the POEA and in subsequent hearings.

It is strongly suggested that when the illegal collection of fees happens, share the information to your employer to make them understand your predicament. They might even help you address the matter with the authorities. If you are unsure on how to go about this, consult a service provider like the Mission.

In most cases, if not all, those victimised by unscrpulous agencies do not have any proof or evidence (i.e. official receipts) that payments were, indeed, made to the agency. It does not mean that you cannot file a case. A detailed account of what happened will be most helpful in place of this evidence. 

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. no. 2522 8264.

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