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LCQ11: Regulation of employment agencies

     Following is a question by Hon Lee Cheuk-yan and a written reply by the Secretary for Labour and Welfare, Mr Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, in the Legislative Council today (January 6):

Question :

     A number of study reports reveal that foreign domestic helpers (FDHs) who come to work in Hong Kong have been subjected to abuse by employment agencies (EAs), including being forced to pay high intermediary charges.  Quite a number of FDHs have incurred huge debt as a result and become "bonded labour". Moreover, some labour groups have relayed to me that the Government has not squarely addressed the aforesaid issue. For instance, the Employment Agencies Administration (EAA) of the Labour Department instituted prosecutions against only four EAs in 2014, and only one of such cases involved overcharging of intermediary charges, reflecting the ineffective monitoring on the part of EAA. Regarding the protection of the rights and interests of FDHs, will the Government inform this Council:

(1) of the number of inspections conducted by the personnel of EAA on EAs in each of the past three years; the existing staff establishment of EAA; whether the authorities will consider increasing the manpower of EAA so as to strengthen EAA's monitoring of EAs; if they will, of the details; if not, the reasons for that;

(2) as some labour groups have pointed out that the current penalties for overcharging of intermediary charges by EAs are too lenient (e.g. the maximum fine being $50,000 only), and that EAs often make FDHs unable to lodge complaints within the six-month actionable period by delaying the issuance of the receipts of intermediary charges, whether the authorities will consider amending the legislation in order to raise the relevant penalties and extend the actionable period; if they will, of the details, including whether the authorities will conduct public consultation; if not, the reasons for that;

(3) given that the Secretary for Labour and Welfare (the Secretary) has indicated that the drafting of the Code of Practice for EAs will be completed in the first quarter of this year, of the details and progress of such work;

(4) given that the Secretary has indicated that a study will be conducted on the offer of compulsory half-day courses for FDHs to enable them to understand their labour rights and interests, and yet I have learnt that the authorities have so far organised only short seminars jointly with the consulates concerned, whether the authorities have given up offering the aforesaid courses; if they have, of the reasons for that; if not, the timetable for launching the courses and the details of the work concerned; and

(5) whether the authorities have had any discussions with the consulates of countries other than Indonesia and the Philippines (including India, Thailand, Nepal and Sri Lanka) on how to protect the rights and interests of the FDHs from those countries; if they have, of the number, dates and contents of the meetings held, as well as the follow-up work (set out the information by name of country in a table); if not, the reasons for that?



     My consolidated reply to the questions raised by Hon Lee Cheuk-yan is provided below :

Parts (1) to (3) on regulation of employment agencies (EAs)

     The Employment Agencies Administration (EAA) of the Labour Department (LD) is responsible for enforcing Part XII of the Employment Ordinance (Cap. 57) (EO) and the Employment Agency Regulations (Cap. 57A) (EAR), and for regulating the operation of EAs through licensing, regular and surprise inspections and complaint investigations.

     Under EO and EAR, EAs commit an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine at level 5 (i.e. $50,000) if they receive other than the prescribed commission from a job-seeker on account of having obtained employment for that person any other reward of any kind, or any payment or other advantage in respect of expenses or otherwise.  According to section 26 of the Magistrates Ordinance (Cap. 227), in any case of an offence, other than an indictable offence, where no time is limited by any enactment for making any complaint or laying any information in respect of such offence, such complaint shall be made or such information laid within 6 months from the time when the matter of such complaint or information respectively arose. LD will take follow-up actions promptly upon receipt of complaints about contraventions of EO and EAR; and will seek advice from the Department of Justice after completing the investigation. If there is sufficient evidence, prosecution will be taken out against the EA concerned. Whether or not the suspected law-defying EA could be successfully convicted depends on many factors, for example, whether there is sufficient evidence, whether the victim is willing to attend the hearing or act as prosecution witness, etc. The courts will make the final judgements independently. LD reminds job-seekers, including FDHs, who suspect that they have been overcharged, to lodge complaints to LD as soon as possible for its follow-up action.

     In the past two financial years, LD has increased the manpower of EAA to the current establishment of eight Labour Officer Grade officers so as to strengthen the monitoring of of EAs, including increasing the number of inspections to EAs from 1 300 to 1 800 each year (representing a 38% increase).  The Government will review the manpower arrangements from time to time to meet operational needs.

     In 2013, 2014 and 2015, LD conducted 1 341, 1 806 and 1 803 inspections respectively to EAs across the territory. In 2015, LD successfully prosecuted a total of 12 EAs, among which nine were convicted of overcharging job-seekers, representing a substantial increase compared to the four convictions of EAs in 2014.

     In addition, the Government is preparing a Code of Practice (the Code) for the industry and plans to consult the industry and stakeholders on the draft in the first quarter of this year. The Government will review the need for turning the Code into statutory requirements introducing other regulatory measures in light of the implementation of the Code. The Government also does not rule out the options of bringing legislative amendments, including raising the maximum penalty, to tighten the regulation of EAs.

Parts (4) and (5) on the protection of the rights and interests of FDHs

     Having regard to the fact that the Philippines and Indonesia are our two major sources of FDHs, the Government has strengthened collaboration with the relevant Consulates-General (CGs) and set up the inter-departmental regular liaison mechanisms to exchange information and co-ordinate promotional efforts.  LD has also maintained contact and held regular meetings with the CGs of other FDH sending countries (e.g. the meeting on the annual review of the Minimum Allowable Wage) to protect the rights and interests of FDHs in Hong Kong.

     Since mid-2014, LD staff have regularly attended briefings for newly-arrived FDHs organised by the CGs of the Philippines and Indonesia so as to brief them on their employment rights and interests. LD has also sought assistance from the relevant CGs to arrange screening of the publicity videos on FDHs' rights in their home countries before their departure for Hong Kong, and will continue to distribute information packs containing government pamphlets and guidebooks on employment rights to the newly-arrived FDHs at the Hong Kong International Airport through a non-governmental organisation so that they could learn about their rights immediately upon arrival.

     Furthermore, to raise FDHs' awareness of employment rights and the channels for seeking assistance, LD has stepped up its publicity and education efforts since early 2014. Examples include: staging more rounds of information kiosks at popular gathering places of FDHs during their rest days and placing advertisements on their employment rights and channels for seeking assistance in local Filipino and Indonesian newspapers. The Government has also produced a handy card in the mother languages of FDHs on employment rights and complaint channels for wide distribution to FDHs to enhance their awareness in this regard.

Ends/Wednesday, January 6, 2016
Issued at HKT 14:40


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