Hong Kong set to jail 'dishonest' maid recruiters in slavery fight

Hong Kong has over 300,000 foreign domestic helpers and their treatment has come under scrutiny in recent years. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

KUALA LUMPUR (REUTERS) - Unscrupulous recruiters of domestic helpers in Hong Kong could soon be jailed under proposed reforms aimed at fighting modern slavery, but campaigners warned the changes would be futile unless properly enforced.

The financial hub has over 300,000 foreign domestic helpers and their treatment has come under scrutiny in recent years, particularly after a high-profile 2014 case 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 HK$350,000 (S$58,587) from HK$50,000, as well as introducing jail terms of up to three years.

The proposal, first tabled to the city's legislature last year, 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 told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Hong Kong.

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

Hong Kong's rules stipulate recruiters cannot charge over 10 per cent 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 labour.

"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 labour, according to another study in 2016 by campaign group Justice Centre Hong Kong.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.