Thu, Feb 01, 2018 - Page 6 News List

Hong Kong set to jail maid recruiters in slavery fight

ONE IN SIX:A proposal that was tabled last year to increase fines by 600% and introduce jail terms of up to three years is expected to be passed this week

Thomson Reuters Foundation, KUALA LUMPUR

Unscrupulous recruiters of domestic helpers in Hong Kong could soon be jailed under proposed reforms aimed at fighting modern slavery, but campaigners said the changes would be futile unless they are properly enforced.

The territory has more than 300,000 foreign domestic helpers and their treatment has come under scrutiny in recent years, particularly after a high-profile case in 2014 of an Indonesian maid who was badly beaten by her employer.

Hong Kong’s government is seeking to increase fines against recruitment agencies found guilty of overcharging helpers to from HK$50,000 (US$6,394) to HK$350,000, as well as introducing jail terms of up to three years.

The proposal, first tabled last year to the territory’s legislature, is due for final debate this week and expected to be passed.

Hong Kong-based Asian Migrants’ Coordinating Body spokesman Eman Villanueva 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 said by telephone.

Every year, thousands of women from impoverished families in nations like the Philippines and Indonesia pay recruiters to secure jobs as domestic workers abroad.

Hong Kong’s rules stipulate recruiters cannot charge more than 10 percent of a helper’s first monthly salary for this service, but activists say this is often violated, with a 2016 study showing they are sometimes charged 25 times the legally permitted amount.

This practice means in many cases, domestic helpers cannot leave their jobs due to massive debt — even in abusive cases.

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 said.

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.

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