LCQ18: Regulating employment agencies

     Following is a question by the Hon Emily Lau and a written reply by the Secretary for Labour and Welfare, Mr Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, in the Legislative Council today (June 1):

Question :

     The Labour Department (LD) promulgated on April 15 this year a draft Code of Practice for Employment Agencies (CoP) and launched a public consultation on it.  CoP enunciates the minimum standards which the Commissioner for Labour (the Commissioner) expects of licensees of employment agencies (EAs), including those engaged in the placement of foreign domestic helpers (FDHs) (FDH-EAs), in operating their business.  On the 3rd of last month, I and several representatives of non-governmental FDH organisations held a discussion with the Commissioner on the draft CoP.  During the discussion, some representatives pointed out that some FDH-EAs often committed illegal acts/engaged in malpractices, including overcharging commission from FDHs, arranging FDHs to borrow money from finance companies and withholding their personal identification documents such as passports and bank debit cards, but the authorities seldom prosecuted those EAs due to difficulties in adducing evidence.  These representatives considered CoP unable to curb the illegal acts/malpractices of FDH-EAs.  In this connection, will the Executive Authorities inform this Council:

(1) of the respective numbers of complaints received by the authorities in the past three years about various types of illegal acts committed/malpractices engaged by FDH-EAs, as well as the investigation procedures; whether the authorities will conduct proactive investigations on various types of cases, including conducting decoy operations jointly with other government departments, and conducting more frequent inspections of EAs; and

(2) whether the authorities have assessed if the existing penalties can curb the illegal acts/malpractices of FDH-EAs; whether the authorities will consider afresh amending the legislation to render such malpractices unlawful and raise the relevant penalties?



     My consolidated reply to the questions raised by the Hon Emily Lau is set out below:

     The Labour Department (LD) regulates employment agencies (EAs) to ensure that they would operate in compliance with the laws through conducting regular and surprise inspections, complaint investigations, as well as instituting prosecutions against law-defying EAs.  LD has all along been taking stringent enforcement actions against EAs which have violated Part XII of the Employment Ordinance (EO) (Cap. 57) and Employment Agency Regulations (EAR) (Cap. 57A).  Upon receipt of complaints, LD will conduct prompt investigations and institute prosecution if there is sufficient evidence and the aggrieved are willing to act as prosecution witnesses.

     During complaint investigations, if an EA was found to have withheld personal belongings (including passports, ATM cards, etc.) of the foreign domestic helpers (FDHs), the case will be referred to the Hong Kong Police Force for follow-up investigations. LD has also established an inter-departmental regular liaison mechanism for sharing information with Consulates-General of FDHs' home countries in Hong Kong and other law enforcement agencies on unscrupulous practices of EAs in order to combat illicit activities by EAs.  The numbers of complaints received by LD against EAs placing FDHs in the past three years are provided at Annex.

     Having regard to public expectations and concerns, especially those from employers and job-seekers (with particular regard to the situation of FDHs) on services of EAs, LD strengthened the manpower to step up the monitoring of EAs in the past two financial years.  The inspection target to EAs has now been increased by 38 per cent from 1 300 to 1 800 inspections each year.  Furthermore, a Code of Practice for Employment Agencies (CoP) has been drafted and is under public consultation.  The draft CoP sets out the salient requirements that EAs must follow in operating their business, which includes amongst others reminders to EAs that withholding of any personal property without explicit consent from the job-seekers may constitute an offence under, for example, the Theft Ordinance (Cap. 210).

     The draft CoP also sets out the minimum standards which the Commissioner for Labour (the Commissioner) expects from EA licensees in operating their business.  Amongst other requirements, the Commissioner expects that EAs should avoid getting involved in the financial affairs of job-seekers and should not force FDHs to take out loans from any institutions within or outside Hong Kong.  LD may issue warning to EAs which fail to meet the standards set out in the CoP and demand rectification.  The Commissioner may also consider all relevant factors, including EAs' compliance with the CoP, in deciding to refuse to renew or to revoke the EA licences.

     After the close of consultation period on June 17, 2016, LD will carefully examine the views received in refining the CoP and introduce it for the industry to follow.  LD will closely monitor the effectiveness of the CoP.  If the effectiveness is not satisfactory, LD may consider adopting other means including seeking legislative amendments to EO and/or EAR to suitably regulate the industry.

Ends/Wednesday, June 1, 2016
Issued at HKT 12:32