Hong Kong’s visiting labor secretary on Thursday downplayed reports that the city’s maids were facing regular labor abuse but echoed concerns from rights groups that the fees being considered for a pilot program with Cambodia may be too high.
Law Chi-kwong, Hong Kong’s labor and welfare secretary, arrived on Thursday to assess Cambodia’s preparations for a deal signed in April that will, for the first time, see the country start feeding the city’s growing appetite for domestic workers. The first few hundred maids are expected to arrive by year’s end.
Taking a break from his meeting with Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng to speak with reporters, Mr. Law said Hong Kong was working hard to do a better job of keeping its maids safe.
“[T]he major purpose of our visit today is how to work together with the Cambodian government so we can ensure that the domestic helpers in Hong Kong will not be facing any difficult situation,” he said. “We have been stepping up our measures in Hong Kong trying to protect them, and particularly in terms of more enforcement dealing with the employment agencies in Hong Kong.”
Last year, hundreds of maids reportedly marched through Hong Kong after several domestic workers fell to their deaths while cleaning outdoor windows on tower blocks.
Justice Centre Hong Kong also released a report last year claiming that 1 in 6 maids in the city were victims of forced labor as defined by the U.N.’s International Labor Organization, meaning work done under the threat of a penalty and for which the worker did not volunteer.
The center said workers on their first contract were nearly three times as likely to face forced labor as those with prior experience in Hong Kong. It also said that workers who take on excessive debt to pay their recruiters, considered 30 percent or more of their annual income, were six times more likely to be victims than those owing less.
The minimum wage for a domestic worker in Hong Kong comes in at about $550 a month. Cambodia is considering charging maids heading to Hong Kong a roughly $2,000 recruitment fee, or just over 30 percent of what they would earn on minimum wage after a year, the threshold for putting them at high risk of forced labor according to the report.
Mr. Law on Thursday acknowledged the risks of high debt and said the fees being considered for the pilot program seemed high.
“One of the purposes of our visit is to try to talk to our counterparts in Cambodia hoping that the fees that they have to pay here will be not excessive,” he said. “The problem, if they have a heavy debt in Cambodia, they would not be protecting their own rights. But we heard from the minister that the amount so far is still a bit more than we would expect.”
Contacted later on, the deputy director of the Labor Ministry’s labor department, Nguy Rith, said the fee was still being negotiated with the agencies and had yet to be finalized.
Asked about Mr. Law’s remarks, he claimed the secretary was not complaining about the proposed fee specifically, but merely expressing a general concern about additional fees charged by brokers.
“Hong Kong’s concern is that excessive fees put a burden on workers. The ministry also pays attention to that,” he said.
Khun Tharo, a project coordinator at Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI), a global union federation, agreed the fees of $2,000 might be a bit high, given the $550 monthly salary, to live in one of the most expensive cities in the world.
“Even with the accommodation and food to be covered by the employers, the domestic workers still need to pay for other necessary expenses,” he said.
The government named the six local recruitment agencies it selected to take part in the Hong Kong program on Wednesday. They include two companies with owners or managers with immediate family ties to top government officials with direct control over labor and immigration issues. The two agencies also took part in a failed pilot program that sent maids to Singapore in 2013 and 2014.