Workers find ways: The domestic helper

HONG KONG - "Buy one Take 5 here in Hong Kong, is the usual practice," said Jasmine, a domestic worker in Hong Kong.

Employment agencies profit from "placement fees," while affiliated lending agencies turn a profit from loaning the "fees."

"The boss will hire one worker," said Jasmine. "After 6 months he will terminate the worker. And after that, he will hire a new one. The agency supplies the new worker to the boss. The boss doesn't pay any extra fee to the agency. But the agency will get lots of money from the new worker that they hire."

In effect, workers bankroll employment agency profits through illegal loans from sharks.

Desperation

Jasmine did not originally intend to pay extra fees.

Her Filipino employment agency charged 10,000 up front for placement with a sister agency in Hong Kong. They assured Jasmine that any additional payments would be made in the form of a salary deduction.

When Jasmine was picked up at the airport by her Hong Kong agency, Wai Fu Employment Services, she had no idea where she was going.

"When we arrived there, we just followed him," said Jasmine. She was led to a strange office.

"He asked us to sit down. Then he said to sign the documents in front of us. I asked, 'what is this for?' But the staff at the lending agency said sign now, and after signing we will explain what it is for.' Since we didn't know anything, we signed it."

Agencies employ remarkably complicated schemes to circumvent this law. Many Filipino domestic workers are either unaware that they are being scammed, or too desperate to say no to agency fees.

"This is like a business," said Jasmine. "The worker, of course, needs to work. So, they do it out of desperation."

Rappler attempted to contact Wai Fu Employment Services via an email sent to Dolly Pataksil from its Filipino counterpart, Agility International Manpower Solution (AIMS), but has not received an answer.

Illegal fee

According to Part XII of the Employment Ordinance and the Employment Agency Regulations of Hong Kong law, domestic helper placement fees are limited to 10% of the first month's salary.

"This may only be collected by the agency after you have been successfully placed and you have received your first month’s wages," according to the Helpers for Domestic Helpers (HDH) webpage. 

Jasmine's "placement fee" amounted to nearly 80,000.

Shiella Estrada, chairperson of the Progressive Labor Union Hong Kong, said most domestic workers end up paying. These fees range from ₱70,000 to ₱105,000.

Only 1/4 of salary left

"I felt sick, as soon as I set foot in Hong Kong. I was in debt to the agency," Jasmine shared.

The loan agency attempted to cover their tracks. They required her to make cash payments at a 7-11 convenience store, eliminating the paper trail.

"My salary for a month is HK$3,740 (over ₱21,000)," said Jasmine. "The loan payment fee from the lending agency is HK$2,618 (over ₱14,800).  So actually, it's 3/4th of my entire salary that is deducted. Only 1/4th is left over for me."

This is money intended for Jasmine's parents, who had previously been living on Jasmine's remittances from Singapore where she used to work.

When asked what happened to them as a result? "They starve, of course," Jasmine replied.

"Realize your rights."

"If the worker doesn't pay the debt, the lending agency will send people to the boss," said Jasmine. "They will force the worker to pay the debt. There isn't a choice. The worker doesn't want trouble."

Jasmine joined the Progressive Labor Union (PLU) shortly after she realized she had been scammed.

"Do you know the feeling, of realizing what is wrong, and of realizing your rights?" said Jasmine. "There is a saying, that there is "No excuse for ignorance of the law. New workers like us really have no idea. We really don't know."

With the help of the PLU, Jasmine is currently suing her employment agency. She hopes to get back the illegal placement,and open the door for other Filipino workers to do the same. - Rappler.com


Editors' note: This is part of the series, Workers find ways: Tara, break muna.

Watch and read the other stories in the series