Of Debt and Despair: The fate of domestic helpers in the hands of unscrupulous agencies and money lenders
We have interviewed a group of domestic helpers to further understand their experiences of working in Hong Kong. Many have complaint of abuses by agencies, money lenders and employers, yet they are unable to report for fear of losing their jobs, which would rendered them in heavy debts without the means of repayments. Upon further research, we found their plight consistent with many of the articles highlighting the hardship of more than 300,000 domestic workers here in Hong Kong.
Many of the domestic helpers in Hong Kong came here in search for better earnings, with the aim of supporting their families back home and saving enough to enable them to return home some day in the future. However, most of them are burdened by hefty placement fees by unscrupulous agencies, which abused the loopholes due to contradictory polices between Hong Kong and the home country, as well as the lack of enforcement by regulators. A 2012 survey done among the 3,000 Indonesian domestic helpers in Hong Kong says nearly 94% of them have been overcharged by the agencies, according to the Association of Indonesian Domestic Helpers in Hong Kong. Repayment usually takes 7 to 8 months of salary payments, and during these periods, domestic helpers are unlikely to report abuse by employers for fear of losing their jobs. 2012 Mission for Migrant Workers survey found that 58% of workers had faced verbal abuse, 18% had suffered physically and 6% had been sexually abused.
Money lenders and agencies often colluded to receive a larger cut of the helper’s repayment. Some Hong Kong agencies take helpers directly to money lender companies to sign up for a loan. Often, workers are not allowed to read the contract, some do not receive a copy and many do not actually receive any money. Nearly 60 % of domestic workers in Hong Kong are in debt, according to surveys of 2,000 women conducted by the charity Enrich from 2008 to 2012.
The lack of enforcement by regulators allows these agencies to operate with impunity. We need a better initiative to stop this vicious cycle which puts these domestic helpers vulnerable and helpless.