With more than 350,000 foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong, and growing demand for their service from other countries, finding a suitable domestic helper of your choice is by no means easy, and has indeed led to many a consumer dispute. The Consumer Council has surveyed 33 employment intermediary agencies and found a wide range of differences in their charges varying from 17% to a high 124% - even for recruitment of foreign domestic helpers of the same nationality or service type. The charges also varied in what they covered, for instance, some did not include medical check-up after arriving Hong Kong; and the items for check-up also differed. Consumers are reminded to carefully compare the agencies for their fees and charges.
From time to time, the Council has received complaints alleging the qualifications and working experience claimed by foreign domestic helpers often turned out to be inaccurate. The Council found some intermediary agencies to rely solely on their overseas partners to verify such information, or even hold their clients responsible. In the view of the Council, the employment intermediary having been paid to provide the recruitment service should exercise due diligence in checking the accuracy of the information.
In the survey, the Council has selected 48 (all with 3 or more branches), out of a total of 1,400 foreign domestic helper intermediary agencies in Hong Kong, to send out a questionnaire for collection of information on their scale of charges and scope of service. 33 agencies responded subsequently; 14 did not and 1 declined on grounds of not officially open for business. The 33 respondents offered recruitment service for domestic helpers variously from Indonesia (32), Philippines (29), Bangladesh (8), Cambodia (2), and Thailand (1).
One of the major area of consumer complaints involved: foreign domestic helpers failing to show up for employment punctually or completely, and discrepancies about their qualifications and experience, for instance, in infant child care or ability to speak fluent English or Cantonese. Early this year, the Labour Department issued a Code of Practice for Employment Agencies, requiring employment agencies to exercise due diligence in checking the accuracy of the information provided by both job-seekers and employers; to ensure information provided to the parties is consistent with the facts made known to them; and when in doubt they should inform either party affected.
The survey showed 29 of the agencies indicated that they are dependent on their overseas partners to check the foreign domestic helpers’ qualifications and work experience; 17 others would verify the domestic helpers’ related documents but among them 13 indicated that they only check on those who have completed their contracts and are currently available in Hong Kong. Only a few would verify also the experience and qualifications of domestic helpers recruited from abroad. One agency categorically stated it would not verify any related information.
The Council is of the view that some agencies are too lax in the verification process, shirking their responsibility and passing it off to the consumers. Some intermediary agencies would include in the recruitment contract exemption clauses that it would not be held responsible for the accuracy of the claims of the domestic helpers. Such exemption clauses may not fully absolve the legal obligations of the agency.
Recruitment service charges vary up to 124%
Recruitment charges varied from country to country. Some agencies charged a higher price for new recruits from abroad than those having completed their service contracts here while some would divide between those with local experience in their own countries and those with overseas experience in Hong Kong, Singapore or Taiwan. The charges for recruitment of the latter would generally be higher by $1,000 to $2,000. In recruitment for the same category of foreign domestic helpers, different intermediary agencies were found to extract different charges varying steeply from 17% to 124%.
By comparison, the charges for new domestic helpers from Indonesia were generally higher ranging from $8,000 to $12,980, a difference of 62%; the charges for Indonesian helpers who have completed their contracts here were more or less the same from $8,800 to $12,800. As for the domestic helpers from the Philippines making up 55% of all foreign domestic helpers, the agency charges were relatively lower, from $7,800 to $11,980, a 54% difference. But as some have not included the insurance cover premium (US$144) mandated by the Philippines government, those who had their contracts completed here will be charged $6,800 to $11,980, a difference of 76%.
The biggest price discrepancy was found in the 8 agencies only which offered recruitment for domestic helpers from Bangladesh, ranging from $4,680 to $10,500, a differential of 1.2 times. For those with completion of their contracts here, the charges varied from $5,980 to $9,800, a 64% difference. According to the intermediaries, the level of charges could be affected by the varying levels of English standard of Bangladesh domestic helpers, and because of the cultural difference few employers in Hong Kong would choose Bangladesh helpers. As the supply of domestic helpers from Cambodia and Thailand was relatively low, only a total of 3 agencies provided recruitment services from there at charges from $9,800 to $11,500.
Besides variation in service charges, employers should pay heed to other costs including overseas agent fee, contract notarization fee, visa fee, processing of documents, etc. Such fees and charges were included in the service charges by the 33 intermediary agencies in the survey. Although all agencies cover overseas medical check-up services but if additional check-up is needed in Hong Kong, 6 agencies will require payment of an extra $600 to $850. Further, if employers require any specific medical check-up for their domestic helpers, they would have to bear the cost themselves.
Changes during guarantee period still entail paying various expenses
All agencies in the survey provide a guarantee period (of 3 months to 2 years) during which employers dissatisfied with the performance of the foreign domestic helpers could change for a new one at a preferential service charge. 14 agencies set no limit on the number of maid changes; 17 limited it to once, and 2 allowed twice. Only 25 agencies would offer a guarantee period to cover foreign domestic helpers who have completed their contracts here. The service charge for maid change was generally 20% to 50% off; some would offer no discount at all. But employers should be aware that in changing domestic helpers besides service charge, they may still have to bear other expenses such as payment in lieu of notice for termination, return airfare, etc., together with the arrangement required to take care of home affairs.
In the event the employers have paid and the agencies were unable to offer the foreign domestic helpers of their choice as promised, 10 of the agencies stated they would not provide any refund; 3 would refund partially for instance the contract notarization fee or the airfare to Hong Kong. 17 agencies indicated that if the fault was proved to be on the part of the helper, they would refund in full; but some would require the employer to make a choice for a replacement helper and unless no suitable choice could be found eventually would refund be applicable.
Consumers employing foreign domestic helpers to note the following:
- Check the Labour Department's Employment Agencies Portal (www.eaa.labour.gov.hk) to ascertain if the intermediary employment agency holds an Employment Agency Licence;
- Ask the agency if it holds a Business Accreditation Certificate issued by the Consulate General concerned. Accredited agencies can directly approach and seek the service of the Consulate General in processing the necessary employment contract and documents;
- Before signing any documents – service agreement, or contract – read carefully the details making sure they correspond with the facts including the provision of refund should the agency be unable to provide the domestic helper as promised, the limitation on maid changes during the guarantee period, etc. And should you find the terms and conditions of the contract unreasonable, ask for amendment; if the agency refuses, consider seriously about discontinuing its service;
- Pay heed to ensure the employment intermediary has followed strictly the Labour Department's Code of Practice for Employment Agencies, for instance, if it has provided a service agreement. If in doubt that the intermediary may have contravened the Code, report to the Labour Department's Employment Agencies Administration.