An increase in complaints against maid agencies in Hong Kong has led to the number of prosecutions tripling in 2015. This year, there have been 12 agencies prosecuted for financial misconduct, up from just four in 2014, according to Matthew Cheung, Hong Kong’s secretary for labour and welfare.
Maid agencies are allowed to charge a placement fee of 10 percent of a domestic helper’s first month’s salary under the current labour laws. This fee is currently HKD421 if the maid is paid the minimum wage for domestic workers, but unscrupulous agencies are widely known to charge helpers thousands of dollars in monthly installments.
With more agencies being brought to justice, Hong Kong’s 341,000 domestic helpers are becoming evermore aware of their legal rights.
“The domestic helper industry is entering a new phase. The internet, and especially social media, have made domestic workers increasingly aware of their rights and ability to prosecute,” said Laurence Fauchon, CEO and co-founder of HelperChoice, an online service that matches maids and families without the use of agencies.
However, some helpers told Coconuts HK their employers are also breaking the law, but they feel powerless to complain under the current system.
Annell, 32, a Filipino domestic worker living in Hong Kong, said, “My employer sexually harasses me when his wife is gone. Sometimes he asks me to take a shower with him.”
Annell adds that she is afraid to complain to the police out of fear that her contract will be terminated.
If a domestic worker has a complaint, they must provide evidence of their accusations, and an agency will charge the maid if the employer terminates the contract.
Ellie, 33, said her employer is also treating her unfairly. “I have to use part of my own salary to pay for my employer’s children’s food. If I complain to the labour department, immigration will keep track of my complaints,” she said. “If I complain three times, I will be forced to go back to the Philippines.”
Ling Lee, Assistant Shop Manager for Sunlight Employment Agency, however, insists that domestic workers can get help if they speak out. “[Domestic helpers] need to pay HKD6,000 only if they are terminated by an employer,” she said. “The worker can come to us if they have a problem with their employer, the law favours the worker.”
Anna, a 36 year-old Filipino domestic helper, vehemently disagrees with Ling’s assertion. “I’ve been here for six years. Sometimes agencies won’t believe us if we complain about our employer,” she said. “Sometimes they get mad if we make a complaint.”
The department plans to introduce a Code of Practice for the employment industry, “which will spell out workers’ rights,” said Cheung.
“In fact, a lot of maids don’t know their rights. The government needs to work with Jakarta and Manila on educating them before they come to Hong Kong,” Democratic Party chairwoman Emily Lau, added, according to the SCMP.
While the Hong Kong government says it’s making strides to improve conditions for domestic workers, the dodgy dealings of maid agencies are arguably the tip of the iceberg.
By law, domestic workers are required to receive a 24 hours off each week, but many say they are coerced by their employers to work at least part of the day.
“I have to work in the morning on my holiday. My employer gives me a curfew of 8pm,” says Ellie. “I will not complain about my employer because I am too afraid.”