Unscrupulous domestic helper recruiters in Hong Kong could face jail terms under proposed reforms aimed at fighting modern slavery, but campaigners warned changes would prove ineffective unless properly enforced.
There are more than 300,000 foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong and their treatment has come under scrutiny in recent years, highlighted by a high-profile case of an Indonesian maid whose employer has been jailed for maltreatment.
The Hong Kong government is seeking to increase fines against recruitment agencies found guilty of overcharging helpers to HKD350,000 from HKD50,000, as well as introducing jail terms of up to three years.
The proposal, which is expected to be passed, is set for final debate.
Eman Villanueva, spokesman of Hong Kong-based Asian Migrants’ Coordinating Body said the changes were “very positive”.
“But for these to be effective, the complaint system and mechanism should be improved, to enable and encourage victims to file complaints. The existing one is inadequate,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Hong Kong.
Thousands of women from poor families in countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia pay recruiters fo
Every year thousands of women from impoverished families in countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia pay recruiters to secure jobs as domestic workers abroad.
Hong Kong’s rules stipulate recruiters cannot charge over 10 percent of a helper’s first monthly salary for this service but activists say this is often violated, with a 2016 study showing sometimes they are charged 25 times the legally permitted amount.
This practice means in many cases domestic helpers cannot not leave their jobs due to massive debt – even in cases where they are abused.
Robert Godden from consultancy Rights Exposure, which conducted the 2016 study, said many domestic workers ended up victims of forced labor.
“Contemporary form of slavery really is about using coercion to keep you in a job otherwise you would not agree to, and there are different methods of coercion, one is financial,” he said.
Godden said Hong Kong needed to improve its poor record in prosecuting dishonest recruiters.
“Unless they are caught breaking the law and they feel it is likely they would be caught breaking the law, then not much would change,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
One in six migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong is a victim of forced labor, according to another study in 2016 by campaign group Justice Centre Hong Kong.