Erwiana and indentured servitude in Hong Kong, an employment agent's perspective

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Torture and slavery in Hong Kong! Headlines like this are pouring from the news outlets lately.  I feel horrified as I hear the stories and see the pictures. I own and operate a domestic helper agency in Hong Kong.  Our agency finds jobs for Filipinos who wish to work in Hong Kong.

In our 7 years of operation we have never seen a case like Erwiana's. Over the years we have had to remove only two helpers from customers' homes. In one case, Grandma was suffering from senile dementia, couldn't remember the helper, thought she was a stranger in the house and threatened her with a knife. The police were called and we removed the helper from their home on the same day. In another case, a helper came to us saying she was fearful of her employer, because the employer poured hot water on her hand, burning her.  When she told my wife the details of what happened, my wife wouldn't allow her to return to the employer's home. We talked to the helper about reporting the case to the police, but she refused. We later escorted her to the home to pick up her things, and found her another employer. 

The vast majority of our customers are kind and good employers who share our values of treating all people with respect and dignity. The come to our agency because they want to find a good helper who can fit long-term into their family. 

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How does a helper get trapped for months in an abusive working environment? The answer is simple: money.  Simply put, most agencies have a conflict of interest. They are charged by the respective consulates (in our case, the Philippines Consulate) to look after the welfare of the helpers placed through them. On the other hand, most of the helpers owe the agency money. If the agent takes action to remove a helper from a dangerous situation, they will lose money. If, in the case of those serving Indonesians, the agent doesn't repay the training school the helper came from, then the training school will not give the HK agent any more workers.  The fox is in charge of the hen house.  Under such arrangements even a good agency is likely going to err on the side of keeping the helper working, rather than err on the side of safety and pull the helper out. 

From the helpers point of view: she comes here to earn a living, but because she has to pay expensive agency fees, she feels she cannot quit.  Her employer may isolate her by not giving her days off, so she is not able to ask others "Is this right? Is this normal?"  One helper reported to us that she was sleeping on the floor. We wrote to the employer about our concern that they were breaching the terms of their contract and were effectively told to "mind your own business". The helper was told not to talk to her agency anymore. We will always encourage helpers to directly talk to their employers, but sometimes they are afraid to, and ask us to help them. If the helper is isolated from others or if her agency always sides with the employer because the helper owes the agency money, what is the helper to do? If no one helps her, either due to lack of access or greed then she will be trapped in an intolerable situation.

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How can we fix the situation? We must begin by removing the fundamental conflict of interest. The easiest way to do that is for all countries to adopt the same or a similar policy to the Philippines. Last year, the Philippines government began enforcing a zero placement fee policy (a policy that, as it turns out, was on the books for years, but never enforced). In effect they said that employment agencies in the Philippines could not collect any placement fees from the helpers. Zero!  (I disagree with this policy and believe the applicants should pay the equivalent of one month's salary, but for now, this is the law.) Their action threw a giant monkey wrench into Hong Kong Employment Agency business model. Before this agencies in the Philippines collected fees and paid their Hong Kong counterparts for every helper they were able to place. The money collected from partner agencies in the Philippines kept the cost of hiring a helper artificially low for Hong Kong people. The same was true for helpers from Indonesia, except that they were forced to take out loans upon arrival in Hong Kong to pay  their Indonesian training school fees and with a cut, of course, for the Hong Kong agency.  

Both Philippine and Hong Kong agencies relied on income from the helpers. Before last year, Filipino helpers paid an average of 80,000 to 120,000 (HK$14,500-21,800) for their jobs.  We set up our company, in part, to bring down the high cost of finding work in Hong Kong. We were, therefore, never as dependant on income from the Philippines as were most agencies. When the Philippines government began enforcing "zero placement" they removed a huge amount of revenue from the table.  Employment agencies suddenly were forced to double their prices for Hong Kong employers, and still that wasn't enough. What to do? The cost of labor and commercial rentals is higher than ever before; 50-70% of their income was taken away at one fell swoop - what are the options?

  1. Find a new source of revenue: Trade groups are taking junkets to Bangladesh and Myanmar in the hopes of bringing in a fresh tide of workers to replace the Filipinos, not because Filipinos don't want to come, but because they won't pay money to come. The party line says "the economies of the Philippines and Indonesia are good now, so they don't want to come anymore. That is simply not true. My agency receives 100's of online applications from the Philippines every week.  Applicants are literally pleading with us to find them work.
  2. Ignoring Philippine and HK law. Agencies have years of experience at this. I had lunch with another agent this week and asked her if we could form an association of agencies who are actually abiding by the laws. She said (anecdotal evidence, I know) she knows a lot of agencies, but only a few who are following the laws. Our helpers report to us weekly about how much their friends and relatives are still paying to come to Hong Kong. The Philippines government is not yet evenly enforcing the zero placement policy. Rappler.com reports: "As of latest count, about 16,000 such cases have reportedly been brought to POLO for conciliation, resulting in about four months of wait for each claimant." If the Philippine government was enforcing zero placement they would be rescinding licenses of agencies NOT spending 1000's of man hours in conciliation efforts.  The fact that there is a huge backlog of conciliation cases says clearly that the practice of charging agency fees to helpers has NOT been stopped. Why doesn't the government stop this practice by rescinding licenses? Why would they invest 1000's of man hours in settling cases? What's in it for those in charge of these policies? Why don't they enforce their own rules?
  3. Raising prices, cutting costs, and improving service. A handful of agencies, including mine, are taking this route. It is difficult because we are competing against the majority of agencies who are still cheating and gaming the system. The playing field is not even, but we hope that the HK and Philippines government will work together to provide a level playing field that both protects the workers and also allows the free market to determine who wins and loses in this business. We feel confident, that if the playing field is even, we can win by providing excellent service rather than by taking advantage of the those who can least afford to pay. 

The case of Erwiana Sulistyaningsih is pushing the Hong Kong government to take a fresh look at the whole system that regulates how Hong Kong people hire and treat helpers. I hope the heat will be hot enough to motivate real transformation, but I'm not going to hold my breath until it happens.