40 employers convicted of abusing FDHs—report

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FDHs in Central

A total of 40 employers in Hong Kong were convicted of abusing and exploiting their foreign domestic workers since last year, according to a US State Department report.

The 2019 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, covering the period from April 2018 to March 2019, said the HK government reported that 11 employers were convicted of physically or sexually abusing their domestic workers compared to just four in 2017.

“The government also reported convicting 29 employers of foreign domestic workers for illegally using workers to perform duties outside their contracts and convicting two for non-payment or underpayment of wages,” the TIP report said.

It added that the sentences for these 29 employers included fines and terms of imprisonment ranging from four weeks to three months.

“The government offered visa extensions with fee waivers to 160 foreign domestic workers determined to be victims of illegal conduct to serve as witnesses,” the report said.

It said the Labour Department also secured the conviction of three agencies for overcharging workers and seven for other offenses, compared to 11 agencies convicted in 2017.

“In addition, from January through March 2019, the government sought charges against 51 employment agencies for overcharging fees and 10 for unlicensed operations,” the report said.

It said five of these charges were filed against the directors or staff of unlicensed employment agencies.

However, the report said NGOs noted that the fines and penalties given to employment agencies exploiting foreign domestic workers “were too light and did not act as a deterrent for unscrupulous employment agencies that observers reported perpetuate debt bondage.”

“Despite having the legal discretion to revoke agency licenses administratively, the EAA (Employment Agencies Administration) over-relied on criminal convictions of agencies to do so,” the report said.

The government required employment agencies to comply with a Code of Practice for Employment Agencies. The Labour Department cited non-compliance with the code in revoking or rejecting the renewal of licenses of 11 employment agencies in 2018.

“Despite these efforts, some employment agencies reportedly continued to operate—and unlawfully retain workers’ passports with impunity—after losing their licenses, sometimes reopening under a different name,” the report said.

“In addition, despite being a violation of the code of practice, observers reported money lenders and employment agencies often operated at the same address without consequence,” it added.

Hong Kong was upgraded to the US State Department’s classification of Tier 2, according to the report, or the category for countries that did “not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination” of human trafficking although they are making increasing efforts to fight trafficking.

“The government did not meet the minimum standards in several key areas. The government did not adequately investigate trafficking crimes, convict any labor traffickers, make sufficient efforts to ensure the safe repatriation of victims to their home countries, enact legislation to fully criminalize all forms of trafficking, or consistently refer victims to services,” the report said.

It said officials continued to penalize trafficking victims for unlawful acts traffickers compelled them to commit and “did not vigorously penalize unscrupulous employment agencies and money lenders that facilitated debt bondage.”

The report said there were approximately 386,000 foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong and some had “become victims of debt bondage in the private homes in which they are employed.”

It noted that a 2018 survey found that one-third of Indonesian workers were asked to sign debt agreements as conditions of their employment.

However, the HK government said it was doing its best to protect FDHs and that “some comments” on Hong Kong in the US State Department report were “not entirely fair or well-founded.”

The government said the Labour Department had introduced multiple new measures in 2018 to protect FDHs, including putting up an inter-departmental steering committee to coordinate the drive against human trafficking.

“The well-being of FDHs in Hong Kong is a major focus of the steering committee. There are currently over 390,000 FDHs in Hong Kong, constituting about 10 per cent of our labour force,” the government said.

“Over the past two decades, the number of FDHs working here has more than doubled, clearly demonstrating that Hong Kong is one of the most popular destinations for FDHs in the world,” it added.