Just four prosecutions were brought by the government’s labour department against domestic helper employment agencies last year, despite 170 complaints being made, it has emerged.

The agencies were prosecuted for overcharging domestic workers, operating without a license and failing to notify a change of management, following complaints made to the Employment Agencies Administration (EAA) of the Labour Department in 2014.

Foreign domestic workers gathering outside Victoria Park. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

At a Legislative Council meeting on Wednesday, Democratic Party chair Emily Lau Wai-hing questioned “whether a mechanism is in place to ensure that EAA fully considers the merits of a complaint before deciding to reject it.”

She also asked how many of the 170 complaints were “rejected by the EAA,” and demanded to know the most common reasons complaints were rejected.

Emily Lau Wai-hing with Tommy Cheung. Photo: GovHK.

In a written reply, Secretary for Labour and Welfare Matthew Cheung Kin-chung said that the EAA usually conducts “surprise inspections” of employment agencies if they are suspected to have breached the Employment Ordinance. Out of the 170 cases, he said, 48 were unrelated to the Ordinance and thus the Labour Department “did not have the authority to take enforcement action.”

Cheung said that the EAA will only seek the advice of the Department of Justice to prosecute agencies when “there is sufficient evidence.” He said whether or not agencies were ultimately prosecuted depended on multiple factors, such as whether the victim was willing to attend hearings.

Wong Kwok-hing (second left). Photo: GovHK.

Wong Kwok-hing of the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions called for the Labour Department to strengthen prosecution efforts, according to Oriental Daily. The pro-establishment legislator said the scarce convictions “fail to act as a deterrent,” and would allow employment agencies to continue exploiting domestic workers.

Foreign domestic workers make up three per cent of Hong Kong’s population. Nearly half of all ethnic minorities in the city are foreign domestic helpers and 99 per cent of them are female, according to a Census and Statistics Department report in 2012.

Paul Benedict Lee

Paul Benedict Lee is an undergraduate law student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Paul has previously contributed to HK Magazine and Radio Television Hong Kong, covering issues ranging from local heritage conservation to arts features. He has also worked as a legal intern at local human rights firm Daly & Associates.