Domestic worker agencies in Hong Kong have a long history of charging exorbitant or illegal fees to recruit domestic workers from overseas. However, a handful of ethical agencies have emerged in recent years to set a bold new precedent: no fees to workers, only employers. Most visibly, there was the Fair Employment Agency (FEA), founded by HKU professor David Bishop and Scott Stiles. While other agencies drive domestic workers into debt bondage in practically open defiance of the law, FEA, a nonprofit, has set out to restore ethics to a business model that forsook them long ago.
But with thousands of agencies operating in Hong Kong, and illegal fees totals climbing steadily higher as more Indonesian domestic workers enter the market, the precedent trumpeted by the FEA often seems little more than symbolic. Barring an unlikely doubling down on enforcement and data collection by the government – roles that Hong Kong says are not its responsibilities — the situation is all but certain to go on as before.
Change might come, however, in the form of HelperChoice.com, an online platform founded three years ago by French former banker Laurence Fauchon. Likened to a “LinkedIn for helpers” last month by the South China Morning Post, HelperChoice allows workers and employers to connect with each other online first, then only as a second step approach an agency to process paperwork and formalize the arrangement. The idea is to return to workers some of the autonomy that agencies traditionally have secreted inside opaque hiring schemes and untraceable money lending apparatuses.
“For us it’s really a two-way process,” said Fauchon. “It’s not only the employer who is here to find his or her helper, it’s also the helper who has to feel comfortable with the employer she talks to.”
She adds that the process is more transparent. “The agency will never tell a helper that an employer is not good, in the sense that they terminated already ten helpers in the past two years…I think that still the direct exchange gives a better idea of who the person is.”
In the traditional model, employment agencies that operate in Hong Kong have close connections with counterpart agencies in the Philippines, Indonesia, and other the Southeast Asian ‘sending’ countries. Women who wish to become foreign domestic workers are drafted into mandatory training camps while Hong Kong employers are arranged for them. Then, as their departure dates near, or shortly after they arrive in Hong Kong, the workers are told they must pay fees that can commonly reach as high as 10,000 HKD. These fees are illegal, but the agencies escape punishment by disguising them as “training fees” and in other ways. (The situation is worse in Indonesia than in the Philippines, whose Philippines Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) ostensibly forbade placement fees in 2006.)
Throughout the process, domestic workers have virtually no authority over the way their lives in Hong Kong are set to unfold. Sociologists say recruiting agencies deliberately instill subservience and then market docile workers to employers as the most desirable. Nicole Constable, in her 1997 book on Hong Kong’s domestic workers, Maid to Order, writes: “One role of the Hong Kong agency is to convince potential employers their domestic workers—their ‘products’—are superior to those of their competitors; that they are better qualified, better trained, and more obedient.”
It was learning about the recruitment process that motivated Fauchon to create the site. After an “unhelpful” hiring process, the worker she was placed with confessed she had been charged a placement fee of 9000 HKD by her agency — 20 times the maximum allowed by Hong Kong law, which stipulates a charge of no more than 10% of the first month’s wages.
Fauchon drafted the site while on maternity leave, and it went live in May 2012. The launch was a quick success, with workers and employers matching almost immediately, though the overall numbers of matches per month were modest. But as word of mouth has spread its popularity has grown, and today the site facilitates as many as 300 matches per month, for a total of more than 2,000 so far. Those numbers, lower only than the largest of Hong Kong’s employment agencies, have attracted publicity, including the long SCMP feature and a spot on Bloomberg TV, also last month.
If it can continue to expand at its current rate, the new recruiting model could force employment agencies to reduce illegal fees, both because helpers could choose the zero-fee HelperChoice as an alternative, and because HelperChoice does not refer worker-employer pairs to unethical agencies. If the platform captures enough of the market, those unethical agencies would be punished.
Only the second scenario is likely to stand a chance at bringing anything like wide-ranging change to the industry, simply because the number of domestic workers and employers is so large.
That will be a challenge. As HelperChoice’s database of workers and employers grows, it could become overcrowded with users not actively seeking each other out. A worker might reach out to an employer through the site, but that employer, having already signed with someone else, might not reply.
More saliently, HelperChoice is not an alternative to employment agencies. After workers and employers connect online — typically through an exchange of emails, then a Skype or in-person interview or two — they still must process the paperwork and officially proceed through an agency. Although HelperChoice only makes referrals to agencies that it trusts, making it a power broker of sorts, it remains to be seen whether simply having the power of referral is enough to deter much financial abuse.
Two Hong Kong employment agencies had mixed views about whether HelperChoice could bring real change.
Allan Smith, of Arrow Employment Services, Hong Kong’s largest employment agency, said innovations like the HelperChoice platform are the only way to make inroads on a system that has been thoroughly corrupted.
“We began attracting a following in the Filipino community because we were the ‘cheapest.’ In addition to being the cheapest we also provide a lot of services and care for the workers deployed through Arrow,” Smith wrote in an email. “HelperChoice takes things a step further — into the cloud. This has great potential to change things even further by driving down costs for employers as well as for the employees.”
He said the biggest problem was “endemic corruption” in the sending countries, and the inability to do anything about it except provide better training for recruited workers. He was speaking in particular about the Philippines.
“I don’t have any hope that the Philippines (#1 corrupt nation in Asia) will change, but I believe that marketplace solutions can make a difference.”
Sarah Bagley, of the smaller Maid for You agency, agreed that HelperChoice is a great initiative but wonders whether the human element would be lost inside a large and impersonal platform.
“The only potential danger is because it’s so geared toward math, then I’m not sure how the interview quality is of each of the helpers. Is it going to create a lot of terminated helpers in the long run?”
Maid for You, which is similar to FEA in charging workers no placement fees, exclusively targets ‘finish contract’ workers, or those already in Hong Kong after finishing at least one two-year contract. Bagley takes pride in being very close to the workers and employers the agency helps place. (Maid for You, unlike Arrow, is a values-first agency, and is recommended by the Campaign.)
“It’s a very personal thing,” Bagley said. HelperChoice might be geared toward “quantity versus quality, which is the totally opposite way that we function…I’ve had much more than a handful of clients who look through [all of the agency options] and say, ‘What a headache, can you please help?’”
At least in terms of growth, one might look to Asiaxpat.com’s domestic worker recruitment platform, one of a handful of precursors to HelperChoice.
Launched in 2000, the site’s developers first had to go into Central, where many Filipino domestic workers spend their day off every Sunday, and sign up domestic workers one by one. Now the office says it sometimes signs as many as 1,000 workers every month. That bodes well for the continued expansion of HelperChoice.
But Asiaxpat’s service, unlike HelperChoice, seems more profit-focused than worker-oriented. Its website features dozens of advertisements, and any communication through the site must be initiated by employers. Domestic workers’ presence on the job board consists solely of bullet-point-like profiles accompanied by photos, which are quickly bumped down a long thread if employers do not spot them. To return a profile back to the top of the page costs 100-150 HKD.
Asiaxpat said in an email that it aimed to ensure domestic workers understood how to use the site and that they posted “correct answers.”
“The problem…is that we know from experience that the helpers need to be walked through the registration process and the questionnaire — otherwise they will submit inaccurate information either because they do not understand the questions…or they mislead in an attempt to ensure they get a job.”
That stands in stark contrast with HelperChoice’s mission to empower workers by allowing them to be autonomous actors. As Fauchon put it:
“A lot of employers still have in mind that helpers are not another employee. This is something that we try to change, saying that, ‘OK maybe they are paid less than in another industry, but still they are employees just like everybody else. The hiring process should be a two-way process.’”