Students Against Fees and Exploitation, an HKU student group

Employment agencies routinely overcharge migrant workers, withhold passports: HKU student group

May 16, 2017 / by / 0 Comment

Last Thursday a student group from the University of Hong Kong revealed an investigation into employment agencies for migrant workers, claiming that a “clear majority” engaged in illegal behaviour such as overcharging placement fees and withholding passports.

Since last October, a group of 15 HKU students—working under the name Students Against Fees and Exploitation (SAFE)—conducted undercover investigations into over 100 employment agencies with the help of volunteers. The volunteers, many of whom are migrant workers, would ask employment agency representatives about their business practices and videotape the conversation.

SAFE representatives told hKUDOS that more than 70% of employment agencies they investigated overcharged placement fees, in some cases charging 20 times the $431 statutory maximum. SAFE has provided some video clips of their investigations, but has not yet released their findings in a systematic report.

Johnson Phan, a SAFE representative and exchange student from Australia, said the group’s main goal is not to conduct an academic study, but to raise awareness about the problem among local media. “If we can do it, as low-budget students—then what is the government doing?” Phan said.

“Our hope is to show how openly and how easy it is to find agencies that act unethically,” said Siya Kulkarni, a SAFE representative and third-year student from India.

SAFE’s investigation is the latest in a long line of similar exposés: last October, the Hong Kong Federation of Asian Domestic Workers found that agencies charge an average of $11321 for placement fees. In March 2016, Justice Centre Hong Kong surveyed migrant workers and found more than half of the respondents had to pay to secure their contracts.

Commentators have compared this form of exploitation, which often results in cripplingly debt for migrant workers, to “modern day slavery”—an assessment SAFE agrees with. In response, the group is pushing for the government to step up enforcement, and to consolidate and clarify existing laws.

“It took almost three years since Erwiana to release a small, little Code of Practice, which basically distracted everyone from the real issue: that the government wasn’t enforcing the laws it already has,” Kulkarni said.

Getting Hongkongers involved

SAFE is largely made up of non-local students, and one of the exceptions is Tiffany Chan, a final-year economics and finance student. Chan admitted that the lack of Hong Kong locals is a problem: “Local students do not put this issue as a priority,” she wrote in an email. “The locals think of it as a problem of [minorities] and think it does not concern them.”

One of SAFE’s strategies to get around this is to emphasize how employment malpractice hurts both employers and employees. For example, some employers unwittingly follow the advice of agencies to withhold passports of migrant workers—potentially a criminal offence—and in turn expose themselves to legal risks. According to SAFE, employers and employees should blame the middleman, not each other.

“A lot of times employers and domestic workers have been pitted against each other during this debate,” Kulkarni said. “What we’re trying to do is to show people that [migrant workers] are a part of Hong Kong, and that everyone is going to be affected by this problem.”

(photo courtesy of K.Y. Cheng, South China Morning Post)


Law and literature student at HKU.