The founder of a recruitment agency in Hong Kong believes that the city is on track to eliminate the exploitation of migrant domestic workers by 2024. And eliminating recruitment fees is the first step in doing so.
Co-founder of the Fair Employment Agency, Scott Stiles, says that his organization has placed over 2,000 Filipino domestic workers at no cost to them. It is an incredible rarity in a city where there are more than 1,400 recruitment agencies — greater than the sum of Hong Kong’s McDonald’s and 7-11 stores.
Many of these recruiters charge domestic workers exorbitant fees that trap them in debt bondage. Stiles estimates that his agency has helped workers avoid an estimated US$3 million in recruitment debt.
The South China Morning Post reports:
“The environment in Hong Kong now compared to 3 ½ years ago when we started is very different,” Stiles said. “People are far more engaged in this, and the Hong Kong government is doing a lot to improve the situation for domestic workers.”
Among the positive moves, Stiles noted local officials last year issued a code of conduct for employment agencies, and in March, they launched an anti-human trafficking task force.
However, several legal experts and domestic workers have said the recent measures fall short of fully tackling the issue, with many calling for anti-human trafficking laws to be put in place.
Shiella Estrade, chairwoman of the Progressive Labour Union of Domestic Workers in Hong Kong, says that many agencies still overcharge workers and very few are punished. On top of that, forced labor is technically not even considered a crime in cosmopolitan Hong Kong.
Workers often have to pay illegal fees both in their home country and in Hong Kong, where agencies can legally charge 10% of a domestic worker’s first month of salary. An investigation last year by University of Hong Kong students found that more than 70% of recruiters had overcharged migrant workers, withheld their passports, or engaged in some form of illegal activity.
Estade says she hopes other agencies will adopt the “no fees” practice of the Fair Recruitment Agency, but she says the organization needs to open up to help all domestic workers, not just Filipinos.
When asked why his agency doesn’t aid Indonesians — the second largest group of domestic workers in Hong Kong — Stiles explained that “We have limited resources, so we engage where we think the most progress can be made. The Philippines has the best laws in place to make that happen. The goal is to provide an end-to-end solution and provide a model for other groups to follow.”