Online Services Give Hong Kong's Domestic Workers More Bargaining Power

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Domestic SlaveryHuman TraffickingPreventionWorker Empowerment

It was after midnight when Genelie Millan dragged herself back to her room, feeling exhausted and empty. She took out her phone and began searching for a way to escape her abusive employer in Hong Kong, and came across a site that would change her life forever.

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Millan, who is a Filipino domestic worker, discovered HelperChoice — one of several online services that cut out middleman recruiters who are infamous for overcharging migrant domestic workers for placement fees. In doing so, HelperChoice prevents domestic workers from falling into debt bondage, stuck working for exploitative employers until they can repay their recruitment fees.

The South China Morning Post reports:

An affluent financial hub, Hong Kong is one of the biggest destinations for helpers in Asia, with some 370,000 women from the Philippines and Indonesia working in the city, according to government data. Millan borrowed 100,000 Philippine pesos (US$1,900) to pay recruiters when she moved to Hong Kong – a huge sum for a poor Filipino family.

The website of Hong Kong-based HelperChoice provides a platform for employers and helpers to connect directly, promising to help both parties find the “perfect match in an ethical way”.

For a fee starting at HK$350 (US$45), potential employers can access a database of job-seeking helpers to set up interviews. Helpers do not pay to register, while employers can choose to pay more for additional services such as having the paperwork done on their behalf.

“It’s a win-win situation,” HelperChoice’s chief executive Alexandra Golovanow says.

Golovanow says that HelperChoice has so far found jobs for 8,000 domestic workers in Hong Kong, growing in popularity as overcharging remains a chronic problem in the city. By law, recruiters cannot charge more than 10% of a domestic worker’s first month salary, but a study by Rights Exposure has shown that workers have been charged more than 25 times the legal amount.

“In some cases, employment agencies also take away their passport,” Golovanow says. “Helpers just can’t leave because they have no paper, no documentation. This is modern slavery – people have no alternatives.”

Other organizations promoting ethical recruitment include the Fair Employment Agency (FEA), which allows employers and domestic workers to register online, but only charges employers for the hiring. The staff at FEA then work to match the two parties based on criteria they’ve entered on their profile. FEA estimates that it has saved domestic workers US$3 million in recruitment fees to date.

Victoria Ahn from FEA explains that they also have safeguards to check in on workers and employers after they are matched.

“Workers are sent a text message a few weeks after they begin working to make sure that they are settling well into their jobs, making sure that they are receiving their salaries, food and proper accommodation,” she says.

“Employers are concurrently sent an email to check in on how things are going, and if they have any issues they want to reach out to the agency on.”

For Millan, these initiatives are important to empower migrant domestic workers. “You can see all the [employers] and what they are looking for and contact them directly,” she said, adding that she was finally able to set her own terms for salary and a day off when looking for a job.

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