Jobs and the Future of Work

Stop the slavery of foreign domestic workers

Carine Kiala
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Hired household help is a common practice across the world. Depending on one’s location and disposable income, the options may include a teenage babysitter, “aunty” from the village, an au-pair exchange student or a foreign domestic worker (FDW).

Growing in popularity is the live-in FDW, who come from Ethiopia, Indonesia, Nepal, the Philippines and other countries. Recruitment agencies are popping up in major cities across the world, advertising trained and competent domestic workers, to whom they promise lucrative jobs abroad. It appears to be a simple business process – but in fact has become a tool for trafficking.

Desperate to leap out of the poverty cycle, countless women in South-East Asia are trying to find employment in wealthier countries. Typically, there are two recruiters involved in this process, one in the home country and the other abroad. Both agencies enjoy high demand and high supply, coupled with poor regulation between departments and across borders.

According to Amnesty International, there are more than 300,000 foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong, the majority of whom are women from the Philippines and Indonesia. Their recruitment is sponsored by employers, with a standard fee covering admin charges and medical check-ups, as well as work visa and flight tickets. Yet recruiters are charging excessive fees to the workers – up to 20 times the legal rate, as reported by the South China Morning Post. They are also deceiving women about their terms of service and have been known to confiscate identity documents. The hefty HKD 21,000 fee is supposedly for “training”, payable upfront in cash or packaged as a personal loan.

Loan repayments require workers to forfeit up to 80% of their salary during the first seven months of work. This is an organized syndicate, which provides the worker with a registration card with her personal information as well as payment instructions, which she may present at her nearest 7-Eleven to make the transfer. Now, suppose she considers this to be a grave injustice and decides not to pay, or she innocently falls behind on payments … what would happen?

Firstly, she and her family back home, and even her employer, will receive persistent phone calls with all sorts of threats and accusations. She is unable to work peacefully and does not enjoy the rewards of her labour. Her unhappiness and fear could have a negative effect on relations with her employer and make her a liability in the workplace; your home.

Secondly, recruitment agencies encourage unsuspecting employers to reveal their grievances against their domestic worker, which establishes the grounds for unfair termination of the contract. While the employer would be offered a replacement at no charge, the worker spirals deeper into debt; the agency charges her with a fine and offers an additional HDK 21,000 loan to arrange another job. As the process repeats itself, the worker finds herself trapped in a cycle of modern-day slavery.

This domestic worker could end up working for you. As an employer, you have the ability and the authority to intervene in this system of exploitation. When opening your home to a live-in foreign domestic worker, consider all the baggage she may be carrying. During initial consultations with the recruitment agency, do not agree to a blind placement. While interviewing candidates, ask if they have paid unwarranted fees or signed a loan agreement. And before the first salary is due, verify with your domestic worker that she is not indebted to her recruiter or any of its associates.

Scrutinizing the freedom of foreign domestic workers will help bring the ethical practices of the recruitment agencies out of the shadows. This trapping, trafficking and slavery has to end.

Author: Carine Kiala, World Economic Forum Global Shaper and Trade and Investment at Consulate General of the Republic of Angola in Hong Kong SAR

Image: Foreign workers, mostly from South East Asian countries, stage a protest against poor working conditions REUTERS/Richard Chung

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