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Substandard Service Quality of Domestic Helper Agencies Triggers Complaint

  • 2016.04.14

Dual career families are very common in Hong Kong, so many of them hire foreign domestic helpers for household chores.  However, hiring a reliable helper is never an easy task and it might sometimes become more of a nuisance.

Among the 234 related complaints received by the Consumer Council in the past 12 months, consumers' grievances were mainly led by prolonged delay in hiring process, failure to report duty on time, and poor performance on the part of the helpers.  It was suspected that some helpers might discount their service quality with a view to forcing the employers to dismiss them, so that they can contract with a new employer while receiving termination fees at the same time.    

Some domestic helper agencies charge a few thousand to nearly ten thousand dollars as handling fees.  When disputes or conflicts arise, they tend to shed responsibilities by shifting the blames to their overseas counterparts, claiming that they only act as a middleman in the hiring process.

In one case, the complainant paid Company A HK$6,800 in September 2015 and was assured that a helper would report duty in mid-November.  At the end of November, the complainant was still not informed of the exact reporting date.  During the period, Company A responded to the complainant's enquiries by a few mobile text messages explaining reasons for the helper's absence.  It was first explained that the helper had yet to complete her body check, then that she was tied down by family obligations.  Company A once promised the helper would report duty on 5 December but the complainant was disappointed again.  In the end, Company A informed the complainant to seek for a replacement as the helper would not come to Hong Kong at all.

Company A rejected the complainant's request to cancel the agreement.  Instead, a replacement was proposed. Should such arrangement be unsuccessful, a refund capped at HK$3,000 would then be made.  The complainant refused to accept this unreasonable offer and inquired with the Immigration Department about the helper's application.  It was found that the application had never been filed.  The complainant thus took the case to the Council and requested for a refund.

Company A claimed that the helper's application was handled by overseas partner and its role is just a middleman between the parties.  Whether the helper would like to come to Hong Kong was beyond their control.  As a result of the Council's conciliation, Company A proposed a full refund, or assistance to the complaint to get a replacement with a 50% discount of the charge.  The complainant opted for total refund.

In another case, the complainant requested Company B to search for a Cantonese-speaking helper to take care of her ageing parents.  The helper's self-introduction video provided by Company B left the complainant with an impression that the helper could speak comprehensible Cantonese.  The helper also stated in her resume that she had good command in Cantonese and could cook as well.  She had received 600 hours of training and passed tests arranged by the local agency.  The complainant paid HK$8,900 as a "referral fee" to hire the helper.

The complainant later found that the helper could neither communicate in Cantonese nor cook satisfactorily.  Worst still, she did not demonstrate any passion to work.  When the case was reported to the staff of Company B, he came across as being surprised, claiming that they had placed trust in the recommendations made by the partner agency.  The staff suggested the complainant to retain the helper on the ground that any replacement would incur a handling fee of HK$6,000 and termination of the contract with the helper would also incur additional charges. 

The complainant alleged that Company B had not evaluated carefully the helper's competency and language proficiency.  She also dissatisfied with the company's offer to charge additional fee for replacement in the circumstance where the performance of the incumbent helper was unacceptable.  She therefore sought the Council's assistance.

Company B explained to the Council that a helper's competency was a matter subject to subjective perception.  Given the Company had successfully hired a helper for the complainant, they refused bluntly to refund nor to arrange a replacement for free.  Upon receiving response from Company B, the complainant notified the Council that the helper had been dismissed.  However, based on the update provided by the Immigration Department, she found that the helper had not returned to her home country with the tickets provided.  The complainant then filed a complaint against Company B with both the Customs and Excise Department and the Immigration Department.

In the third case, the complainant commissioned Company C to hire a helper to look after a baby.  The complainant requested specifically for a helper with relevant experience and had not worked in Hong Kong before, believing that newly arrived helpers are "more obedient".  Company C shortlisted for the complainant a helper who stated in her CV that she did not have any overseas working experience.

The helper reporter duty in January 2015.  The complainant's wife found that the helper did not know how to take care of the baby and was a slacker at work.  One month later, the helper told them that she was unhappy and wanted to resign.  The complainant thought the helper might find it difficult to adapt to Hong Kong.  To his surprise, the helper told him that she had worked in Hong Kong and had been a HKID cardholder since 2012.  The helper eventually quitted in February. 

The complainant said he had placed trust in Company C due to its rich experience in the business.  However, the helper it referred performed with the manner failing the requirements mutually agreed.  Nevertheless, Company C indicated that it was not their responsibility to ensure the accuracy of information provided by the helpers.  Therefore, they would only agree to get a replacement for the complainant at half of the usual rate.

The complainant filed complaint with the Council, requesting a full refund from Company C.  Company C responded that the helper resigned on her own accord.  Thus, there was nothing to do with its service quality and refused to refund.  The Council suggested the complainant consider resolving the dispute through legal action.

To improve the practices of the industry, the Labour Department has been stipulating a code of practice for domestic helper agencies.  The Council hope that such a code will be implemented shortly for better consumer protection.  Consumers are urged to pay heed to the following when hiring a foreign domestic helper (FDH):

  • Seek advice and referrals from relatives and friends, and choose an agency with valid Business Registration, Employment Agency Licence and licences granted by relevant consulates, this will facilitate pursuit of claim in case of dispute;
  • Pay attention to the relationship between the agency and its overseas partners.  The agency cannot rely solely on the information about the helpers rendered by their partners and disclaim their own responsibility to ensure the accuracy of the FDHs' information.  If consumers discover any discrepancy between actual state and the details stated in the FDH's CV, the agency might be considered as having contravened the Trade Descriptions Ordinance.  Complaint may be filed with the Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department;
  • Some agencies will arrange employers to meet the helpers in person or via video conferences.  Consumers should make good use of this opportunity to assess their competencies;
  • Read the terms carefully before signing any contracts, in particular those related to the date to report duty, arrangements in case the FDH fails to show up, the circumstances under which replacement is allowed and the related arrangements and charges.  Consumers should also take note of the details of agency service fees and the possibility of refund;
  • FDHs are equally protected under the Employment Ordinance.  Either the employer or the helper may legally terminate the contract prior to expiration date by giving not less than one month's notice in writing or by one month wage payment in lieu of notice to the other party.  An employer who terminates the employment contract with a helper is required to settle other expenses in relation to the termination as well.

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