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Hong Kong: Pandemic highlights Hong Kong’s reliance on migrant domestic workers and the government’s failure to protect them
The pandemic has highlighted how important migrant domestic workers are to families in Hong Kong, yet new research reveals that the government’s mechanisms to protect them are not fit for purpose.
Research published today clearly shows that five years since coming into force, the Hong Kong government’s Code of Practice for Employment Agencies (CoP) is being widely flouted by agencies, leaving migrant domestic workers at risk of abuse and exploitation. Yet rather than addressing the failings of their own policies, the government has targeted domestic workers who seek better terms and conditions at work (so-called ‘job-hopping’) and unfairly punished them.
The new report, Fit for Purpose – assessing compliance with the Code of Practice, is based on qualitative interviews with 105 Filipino and Indonesian domestic workers between April and June 2021. It was produced by the Hong Kong Federation of Asian Domestic Workers Unions (FADWU) in collaboration with the Union of United Domestic Workers (UUDW) as a follow-up to the 2018 report Agents of Change? that provided a similar assessment of the CoP.
“The government, including the Labour Department and Immigration Department, have had five years to take action against these agencies and reform discriminatory policies that increase the risk of migrant domestic workers being exploited. Yet, our research shows that, if anything, the situation has got worse”, said Phobusk Gasing, Chairperson of FADWU.
Fit for Purpose assesses components of the CoP designed to protect the rights of migrant domestic workers. Its findings reveal that full compliance with the CoP is practically non-existent, with 100% of agencies cited in the survey in breach of one or more provisions. For the most serious offences, punishable by imprisonment, 57% of respondents reported that their employment agency was in breach of the law (either by collecting illegal fees upon arrival; charging illegal fees for changing jobs; and/or confiscated passports).
The research also found that well over half of interviewees were charged illegal fees at some point, with newly arrived migrants paying agency fees averaging HKD 12,446 – more than 26 times the legal permitted maximum. Of those who changed employers in Hong Kong, 46% were charged what likely amounted to illegal agency fees averaging HKD 6,235.
“This new research shows that non-compliance with the Code of Practice is not confined to a few rogue agencies, but rather a widespread problem throughout Hong Kong. Five years since coming into force the CoP is clearly not able to do the job it was designed for”, said Phobusk Gasing, Chairperson of FADWU.
The report also documents that 29% of interviewees had their personal documents—mainly pass-ports and contracts—illegally taken from them. In 70% of these cases, this was done by their employment agency. If these figures are indicative of the wider population this would amount to over 100,000 individuals having their personal documents, including passports,
Even basic provisions such as providing receipts for payments received from domestic workers are being widely ignored, with a staggering 88% of respondents either not provided a receipt or given an inaccurate one. By ignoring this provision, there is no record of what agencies charge domestic workers. As a result, prosecutions for illegal fees are much more difficult.
“Many employment agencies know they can largely ignore the CoP and continue to act illegally. This is because they have little fear of being caught and that the punishments imposed are not enough to act as a deterrent. As the problem is so pervasive, migrant domestic workers have little choice but to go along with the demands of these unscrupulous agencies”, said Gasing.
The report highlights that the vast majority of employment agencies continue to violate multiple provisions of the CoP without serious consequences. This is evidenced by the fact that the Labour Department reported only 10 convictions of employment agencies found to be in breach of employment laws between 2019 and 2021. This is despite receiving 475, 290 and 269 complaints respectively over that period about agencies serving migrant domestic workers.
For the small number of agencies found in breach of the law, the average fine imposed over this period for overcharging job seekers was only HKD 16,660. This is made significantly higher by one fine of HKD 84,000. If this outlier is removed, the average is reduced by over half to HKD 8,260. Given the full extent of the powers available to the Labour Department and the profits made by employment agencies for the placement of workers, it is difficult to see how the amount levelled as fines can act as a significant disincentive.
“FADWU’s research clearly shows that on nearly every metric the CoP is failing to address the problems it was designed to solve. It is time for the Labour Department to admit that after nearly five years the CoP is not fit for purpose and to introduce legislation, robust monitoring, and effective prosecutions to force compliance by employment agencies”, said Gasing.
The Code of Practice for Employment Agencies (CoP) was introduced by the Labour Department in January 2017. When the draft CoP was published, the Labour Department stated that it would, “closely monitor the effectiveness of the CoP [and] in case the CoP could not achieve its objective, LD may consider adopting other means including, inter alia, seeking legislative amendments to EO [Employment Ordinance] and/or EAR [Employment Agency Regulation] to suitably regulate the industry.”
The Hong Kong Federation of Asian Domestic Workers Unions (FADWU).
FADWU is the only registered trade union federation of domestic workers in Hong Kong organising local and migrant domestic workers. It is an affiliate of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF). Its current affiliates include the Hong Kong Domestic Workers General Union (HKDWGU), Thai Migrant Workers Union in Hong Kong (TMWU), Union of Nepalese Domestic Workers in Hong Kong (UNDW), Overseas Domestic Workers Union (ODWU), and Progressive Labor Union of Domestic Workers in Hong Kong (PLU). It currently has 847 paying members via its affiliates.
Tel +852 6851 2879
Email [email protected]
Union of United Domestic Workers (UUDW)
UUDW is a trade union of migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong. It was established on 26 February 2020 and is registered at the Registry of Trade Unions in Hong Kong (TU/1400). The purpose of the UUDW is to help domestic workers in Hong Kong who have problems with employers and agents, promote and uphold the right and welfare of domestic workers, and empower and strengthen domestic workers to improve working conditions by raising violations that occur through advocacy, action and dialogue. It does this through programmes capacity building activities, education, policy advocacy, organising, and legal assistance/services.
Tel +852 6642 8606
Email [email protected]
Notes for editors:
The full report is available to view online:
For further information or to arrange an interview, please contact:
Whatsapp: +852 6851 2879