Employment agency admitted overcharging migrant domestic workers 30 times

10/09/2016 - 5:10pm

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Employment agency admitted overcharging migrant domestic workers 30 times
-Workers were forced to open bank account while debit cards were withheld

Migrant workers are always overcharged for agency fees, however only a handful of employment agencies were prosecuted under the loose regulation of the Labour Department. Three Indonesian workers with assist from union lodge a complaint about being charged nearly 30 times the legally allowable commission by the agency, which forced the workers into debt, withheld their bank cards and passports. Wong Yuk Jen ,the licensee of employment agency, pleaded guilty on Sept  2 at Eastern Court.

Workers into forced debt as agency overcharged 30 times

On March, FADWU (Hong Kong Federation of Asian Domestic Workers Unions) and SBMI-HK(Hong Kong branch of an Indonesian union) received complaints from five Indonesian domestic workers of overcharging by Ursula Advanced Employment Center. Due to various living pressures, only three of them reported to the Labour Department.

The accused Licensee Wong Yuk Jen took three workers to Indonesian oversea trust company, borrowed $10,000 and $3,000, which hadn’t go straight into workers’ pockets. Then she opened Hang Seng Bank accounts for the worker while both the debit cards and passwords are withheld. Wong asked the employers to pay the wages  into the workers’ Hang Seng Bank accounts while by controlling the account herself she transfer money to her own account as commission.

A worker was charged four times monthly wages while the other two were charged two times. That means they had to pay 3,000 dollars a month as commission and ended up with mere seven hundreds dollars for monthly wages, organizing secretary Leo Tang says. To comply with the requirements of the law, the agency should charge no more than 10%, about four hundreds dollars,  of the workers’ first monthly wages, which means the agency had overcharged 30 times the legally mandated fees. Ursula was prosecuted by the Labour Department for receiving from a job applicant, except the prescribed commission, any fees or reward.

The time limit for prosecution of the above offence is generally within 6 months. The concerned workers were charged by the agency from the end of 2015 to the beginning of 2016, therefore the prosecution only last a month. Mrs Wong once demanded her employers to pay 3,000 dollars a month, equivalent to six month agency fees, Leo Tang says.

Workers were sacked during prosecution
Judge denounced the severely exploiting agency

Two out of three workers were dismissed, while the remaining empathetic employer support the worker and kept her contract. Staff from the agency would lied to the employer that worker had gotten into debt if they refuse to pay agency fees. Leo believed that the first employer who sacked the worker was obviously misled by the agency in this way.

Mr Arthur Lam Hei-wei, the Special Magistrates, criticized Wong for accusing serious offence. “Workers were tortured and exploited.” Lam told the accused licensee to be empathetic, and imagine that “seven hundreds dollars, or even four thousands a month would never be enough for them who could be the sole breadwinners of their home.”

Mr Lam criticized the accused licensee for withholding passports, contracts and wages from employers, then prohibiting migrant domestic workers from working overseas, including Hong Kong. Local employers will find it hard to hire migrant workers as well.

Wong admitted three charges, she was ordered to pay a fine of $10,000 and one month agency fees to the three employees.

Overcharging becomes hidden agenda
Union: negligible punishment useless to deter agencies

Elsya, representative of SBMI-HK, pointed out agencies’ deceit on migrant domestic workers who were in the dark about Hong Kong’s legislation and workers’ right. Overcharging had been prevailing.

The union had received over fifty complaints on overcharged agency fees for the past eight months, most were unspoken as workers were afraid of losing their jobs, thus very few inspections were carried out by the department. On June 2016, Gold Union Employment Agency was also convicted for overcharging migrant domestic workers, there were two cases including Ursula’s, being prosecuted separately over the past three months.

If an agency is convicted of overcharging agency fees, it is liable on conviction to a fine of $50,000, but no imprisonment is needed. Leo Tang said negligible punishment and short prosecution period could not deter agencies from exploiting migrant workers as current regulations weren’t enough to recover victims’ wages lost.

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