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Harmonious relationship between employers and foreign domestic helpers is win-win for all

20 December 2015

With the advent of Christmas and New Year holidays, it is the annual peak season of outbound travel. Some foreign domestic helpers (FDHs) in Hong Kong also choose to renew family ties by taking home leave at this time.

One of my colleagues told me that her FDH, who has served her family for over 13 years, would like to make a home visit this Christmas in addition to the usual in-between-contract home leave. As her helper has been serving the family diligently, my colleague decided to pay her passage as a Christmas gift. I firmly believe that she would be rewarded with even better service from her helper by adopting such employee-friendly practice.

Since FDHs were first admitted to Hong Kong in the 1970s to meet the acute shortage of live-in domestic helpers here, the number of foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong has been constantly increasing.

Over the last decade, the FDH population has increased by over 50% from some 223 000 (in end-2005) to over 341 000 (in end-November 2015), accounting for nearly 9% of our total labour force.

The Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) is fully committed to safeguarding the rights of FDHs in Hong Kong and has stepped up its efforts on various fronts to enhance their protection in the past two years. These efforts are paying good dividends as can be reflected by the statistics of enforcement and employment claims.

The overwhelming majority of Hong Kong employers treat their FDHs well, and most FDHs enjoy a harmonious relationship with their employers. Living under the same roof, most FDHs help to take care of the elderly or children. There is every incentive for employers to build a harmonious relationship with their FDHs. Unfortunately, it takes only a few black sheep to tarnish the image of our whole community and undo our good work.

The six-year jail term imposed recently on an employer convicted of physically abusing an Indonesian domestic helper vividly demonstrates the importance that the HKSAR Government attaches to protecting FDHs. Our community will not tolerate any abuse of FDHs and the authority will act relentlessly to ensure justice will be done. FDHs who feel aggrieved should come forward and report their cases to the authorities which will take follow-up enforcement action promptly.

We have taken steps to tighten the regulation of employment agencies (EAs). Since April 2014, the Labour Department (LD) has increased manpower to police the operation of EAs. The number of inspections of EAs has risen from 1 300 to 1 800 inspections per year, representing a 38% increase. LD will introduce a Code of Practice for the industry, spelling out the good practices and malpractices as well as acts to be avoided. We will consult the relevant stakeholders including FDH unions and EAs when the draft is ready in the first quarter of 2016.

With more FDHs willing to come forward to report their cases and act as prosecution witnesses, we have successfully prosecuted 12 EAs (including nine on overcharging job-seekers) so far in 2015, compared with the conviction of four EAs (including one on overcharging) in 2014. LD will continue to take stringent enforcement actions against EAs which violate the laws.

Besides, so far in 2015 LD secured 12 convicted summonses against FDH employers for offences under the Employment Ordinance, and one of the convicted employers was sentenced to four months' imprisonment in addition to a fine of $10,000.

In light of the problem of indebtedness facing many FDHs which should be tackled at source and before they set foot in Hong Kong, we have stepped up government-to-government collaboration with FDHs' home countries.

I personally met the Minister of Manpower of Indonesia and the Secretary of Labor and Employment of the Philippines respectively in August this year during their working visits to Hong Kong. Arising from the meetings, it was agreed that both governments would continue the high-level contacts of senior officials of both sides, as well as work together to enhance the transparency of the training and placement fees charged and strengthen the monitoring over recruitment agencies.

At the working level, inter-departmental regular liaison mechanisms with both the Indonesian and Philippines Consulates General (CGs) have been set up respectively since 2014, under which the HKSAR Government and the two governments discuss matters requiring mutual attention concerning FDHs, exchange information about EAs, employers and FDHs for follow-up action and coordinate promotional efforts.

I am glad that through these enhanced efforts, there has been an increased awareness on the part of FDHs of their rights and obligations as well as mutual respect by both FDHs and the employers as reflected by the statistics on employment claims received.

In the past five years before 2014 (i.e. 2009 – 2013), LD handled an average of over 3 000 claims involving FDHs per year. In 2014, the number of claims fell to 1 913. So far in 2015, the number dived further to 1 341 (as at end-November 2015). This may be due to our increasing publicity and promotional efforts. Of the claims handled in 2014 and (in the first 11 months in) 2015, about 75% were resolved / settled through conciliation.

LD has also stepped up publicity and education towards both FDHs and their employers.

To ensure that FDHs are aware of their rights and benefits, we have sought the assistance from the relevant CGs to arrange screening of the publicity videos on FDH rights at FDHs' home countries before their departure for Hong Kong. A non-governmental organisation has been engaged by the HKSAR Government to distribute information packs containing government pamphlets and guidebooks on their employment rights upon their arrival at the Hong Kong Airport.

LD officers have been proactively joining the CGs' briefings for the newly-arrived FDHs to brief them on their rights. We also organise seminars and set up information kiosks regularly in the popular gathering places of FDHs during their rest days, and place advertisements with messages about their employment rights and channels for seeking assistance, etc. in local Filipino and Indonesian newspapers. We have also produced a handy card in the mother languages of FDHs on their employment rights and complaint channels for distribution to the FDHs.

In addition, we have produced Announcements in the Public Interest for television and radio and other publicity materials to remind employers about their obligations, e.g. paying wages on time and appealing to them to treat FDHs well. To reach out to the employers, a flyer setting out the employment obligations of employers has been inserted in the recent water bills for distribution to all Hong Kong households.

In the face of our ageing population and manpower shortage, we will continue to count on FDHs to help look after young children or elderly members in our families. It is in our interest and incumbent on the Hong Kong SAR Government to ensure that FDHs are fully protected and respected.

Ends

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