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Foreign-worker regulations in Hong Kong need to be improved

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Foreign-worker regulations in Hong Kong need to be improved

Recently, the Wen Wei Po newspaper reported that unidentified nursing homes and unlicensed employment agencies in Hong Kong had allegedly engaged in conspiracies to defraud Chinese mainland caregivers by deducting their salaries and requiring them to work overtime. The report has raised a storm of controversy.

By Chystie Lam and Kacee Ting Wong

Because of the rapid aging of our population, the demographic shifts have created strong community demand for caregivers. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government needs to break the constraints of an unbalanced focus on regulating employment agencies as a way to facilitate the importation of workers, such as foreign domestic helpers (FDHs). Complying with the popularity of the “aging in place” concept, the government has made efforts to promote homecare over recent years. But more attention should be given to the improvement of policies and an increase in capital and manpower. There is also room for improving service consultation. Prompt action should be given serious consideration. Our think tank is of the view that the government should leverage our advantages and uniqueness, instead of limiting the space of the development of employment agencies.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, FDHs faced different types of problems in Hong Kong, including an increased workload, fewer breaks, and the risk of getting fired because of their refusal to stay home on rest days. Employers are also confronted with the problems of job hopping and the failure of some FDHs to report for duty on schedule.

Hong Kong society has witnessed a rise in concern over the rights of FDHs because of their growing numbers, with increasing recognition that FDHs should learn about their rights through various channels. Employers, on the other hand, lack these kinds of support. They lack a full understanding of the Employment Ordinance (EO), the Immigration Ordinance, the Occupational Safety and Health Ordinance, the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance, the common law concept of duty of care, and various anti-discrimination ordinances.

Generally speaking, FDHs must find new employment and obtain an approved work visa within two weeks of the expiration or premature termination of their employment contracts

The long-standing contradictions between employers and FDHs, together with the widely reported cases of multilayer exploitation of imported caregivers, have shown that these matters get entangled in a complicated web of relationships with cross-border enterprises. In the following discussion, we try to examine whether the Code of Practice (COP) will provide a long-term solutions to these festering cross-border problems.

The government relies heavily on Part XII of the EO (CAP 57) and the Employment Agencies Regulations (CAP 57A) to regulate employment agencies in the city. From 2014 to 2016, complaints against employment agencies registered an increase. In response, the government introduced the Code of Practice for these agencies, focusing on statutory requirements and the minimum standards of services expected by the Labor Department.

According to Section 50(1) of the EO, an employment agency is defined as a person who operates a business the purpose of which is a) to obtain employment for another person; and b) to supply the labor of another person to an employer, whether or not the person who operates the business will derive any pecuniary or other material advantage from either the employer or such other person.

Unconventionally, an employment agency is now informally required to wear multiple hats, including helping FDHs to book quarantine hotels during the pandemic and playing the role of a travel agency or hostel manager. Charting their way through unknown territory, employment agencies have worked very hard to juggle these additional duties. Unable to deliver satisfactory results, they and other relevant parties are drowning in negative mindsets.

Additionally, employment agencies for FDHs are expected to provide mediation, translation of foreign languages, psychological counseling, vocational training, legal advice, and FDH-protecting services. All these services require professional knowledge in respective fields.

Concerning FDH-protecting services, it is contrary to common sense to impose additional duties on employment agencies to provide boarding facilities for FDHs. This is essentially the responsibility of hostels, and the Home Affairs Department should regulate these services.

Employers are responsible for providing accommodation for FDHs pursuant to local law. According to Clause 3 of the standard employment contract (ID407), a FDH is required to reside in the employer’s residence, which is a single flat stated in the employer’s address. Providing appropriate accommodation for FDHs is not only a responsibility of the employer, it is also an internationally recognized means to protect the rights of foreign workers.

Generally speaking, FDHs must find new employment and obtain an approved work visa within two weeks of the expiration or premature termination of their employment contracts. In some cases, FDHs may be granted an extension of stay. Therefore, FDHs are required to leave Hong Kong in accordance with the two-week rule or after the expiration of the newly granted extension, whichever is earlier. Unless there are exceptional circumstances, including the relocation of employer, migration, death or economic reasons that prevent an employer from performing the contract, the Immigration Department does not allow FDHs to find new employment during the course of the two-year contract. If FDHs succeed in finding new employment, they must leave Hong Kong and apply for a new work visa from the Immigration Department.

While finding new employment under the two-week rule, FDHs are allowed to stay in Hong Kong only as tourists. They reside in hostels during their short stay. It’s therefore a misnomer to call these hostels ‘boarding facilities for FDHs.’

The Labour Department has mistakenly placed “boarding facilities for FDHs” in the COP. Not only does it fail to solve the livelihood and environmental problems caused by the FDHs, it is also affecting the healthy development of employment agencies. The Labour Department has consistently made efforts to improve protection mechanisms for workers in order to live up to the expectations of foreign consulates.

The HKSAR, in compliance with international conventions, can give financial support to measures aimed at providing safe and healthy accommodation for workers who are affected by pollution or a dangerous environment.

In Singapore, the Ministry of Manpower and the Housing and Development Board have made joint efforts to provide accommodation for foreign workers. Two hundred thousand out of 1 million foreign workers are now living in 43 specially constructed hostels. With gymnasium facilities, every hostel can accommodate more than 1,000 workers. The accommodation fee varies in accordance with its location, facilities and mode of building. If employers fail to meet the statutory requirements laid down by the Occupational Safety and Health Division, they can rely on temporary hostels provided by the government.

The activities of employment agencies have become woven into the fabric of different economic sectors, affecting every part of the lives of residents. In his maiden Policy Address, Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu set out key performance indicators for attracting enterprises and talents. It’s taking too much out of the COP to solve these problems because they involve interaction between legal and labor protection policies.

The COP for Employment Agencies, which is laid down in Section 62A of the EO, aims at promoting the professional standards and quality of services of employment agencies. But the suggestions under the COP focus on job hopping, debt problems of FDHs, and the supervision of unlicensed hostels for FDHs. Failing to establish a clear foothold, the review cannot meet the public expectations of fairness and justice.

Because the import of foreign workers has a deep impact on our economy and people’s livelihoods, the government should lay a firm foundation for nurturing manpower and building a fair and just society. Such foundation is the key to sustainability and long-term prosperity and stability. It’s also in line with the ultimate aim of building a responsive government to meet public demands.

Chrystie Lam Haa-iu is director of labour and welfare affairs, Chinese Dream Think Tank, and founder of the Coalition of Global Home Service Sustainable Development.

Kacee Ting Wong is a barrister, part-time researcher of Shenzhen University Hong Kong and Macao Basic Law Research Center, and chairman of the Chinese Dream Think Tank.

Chinese Dream Think Tank is a non-profit Hong Kong-based organization working with skilled volunteers, experts and professionals who are passionate about telling the China story well.

*The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily. This article is reproduced by Kwun Media with the consent of China Daily.

中國夢智庫|《職業介紹所實務守則》修訂(一)

近日,香港《文匯報》連環揭露有安老院舍疑串謀無牌中介,剋扣內地來港護理員的工資及超時工作一事亦鬧得熱烘烘。

香港特區人口快速老化,民間需求外地照顧新動力的人數日益增加,而特區政府現行外勞或外籍家庭傭工引進政策,原則上仍以監管職業介紹所為限。近年來,特區政府努力發展居家護老制度,但政策、資金、人力、服務諮詢等問題仍有待積極改善,實緩不濟急。本會希望

特區政府能增加和擴大我們的優勢和特點,而不是要削弱和縮少我們的發展空間。自「2019 冠狀病毒病」爆發以來,香港的外籍家庭傭工(外傭)遇到各種困境,包括工作量增加、休息時間減少,以及擔心休息日外出後被解僱。僱主亦面對外籍家庭傭工未能預期到港、故意胡亂轉工等形形式式問題。

隨着本港外傭數目漸多,社會日益關注現有外傭權益,從不同途徑教育外傭了解個人權益,反觀在僱主一方,相對支援極少,大部份僱主對《僱傭條例》《入境條例》《職業安全及健康條例》、普通法下僱主對僱員負有的謹慎責任、《歧視條例》、《個人私隱條例》等的認知不足。

從外傭與僱主長久矛盾,以至近日外勞護理員遭層層抽水事件的廣泛報導,大眾可以留意到所有事件的主體與跨境企業有千絲萬縷的關聯,《職業介紹所實務守則》再修訂又是否能夠解決這長久以來的跨境瘤病,筆者將逐一與讀者探討。

香港特區政府規管職業介紹所(“EA”)的主要法律來源是《僱傭條例》(第 57 章)(“EO”)第 XII 部和《職業介紹所規例》(第57A 章)(“EAR”) 。於 2014-2016 間涉及外傭職業介紹所的投訴有所上升,特區政府逐於 2017 年 1 月為職業介紹所業界發佈實務守則,守則主要分為兩部份,分別列明營運職業介紹所時必須遵守的法定要求,及載述勞工處處長期望職業介紹所應達到的最低標準。

就《僱傭條例》第 50(1) 條,“職業介紹所”是指經營企業的人,其目的是為他人就業,或向僱主提供他人的勞動力,無論經營該企業的人是否會獲得任何來自僱主或其他人的金錢或其他物質利益。

現今本港的外籍家庭傭工職業介紹所被不成文要求需身兼多職,此舉導致職能混淆不清,例如:在疫情間,職業介紹所為外傭僱主安排防疫酒店訂房,處理旅行社或賓館業工作,當中強行要求由行外人處理行內事,當然吃力不討好,各方負面情緒不斷升溫。

除此以外,現在的外勞職業介紹所還被寄望處理不同事務,如:勞資關係調解、外語翻譯、家庭及心理輔導、職業技能培訓、勞資法律咨詢和保護外勞服務中心等,這些是專業領域範疇的工作。就以保護外勞服務中心而言,最令人易理解的就是坊間所謂的外傭宿舍,這類中途宿舍的營運模式與出租旅館或床位寓所無異,應該為賓館業事務,並由民政事務總署把關。

 

根據香港法律,外籍家庭傭工的居住地點是由僱主負責,外傭必須在「標準僱傭合約」(ID 407)第 3 條列明的僱主住所工作和居住,僱主住址是指在一個地點的單一居所,而提供合適的住宿環境是僱主的責任之一,也是國際保護勞工權益的重要措施之一。

一般而言,外籍家庭傭工合約如提前終止,外傭只可獲准在本港逗留至合約終止後的兩個星期,或至獲准逗留期屆滿為止,兩者以較早的日期為準,除因入境處視為合理的特殊情況外(包括原來的僱主因外調、移民、逝世或經濟原因以致不能繼續履行合約,或有證據顯示該外傭曾遭受苛待或剝削),外傭在兩年合約期內提出在港轉換僱主的申請,通常都不會獲得批准。外傭如欲受僱於新僱主,須離開香港及向入境處重新申請工作簽證。

而當中在這「兩星期規則」或辦理轉換僱主申請時,當事人是以旅客條件繼續在香港逗留,即此逗留期間的身份已不是外籍家庭傭工,其身份為一位旅客。外間一直把此類賓館描述為外傭宿舍已有不合實際情況。

勞工處在未能履清著眼點之下,把誤稱為「外傭宿舍」 放於《職業介紹所實務守則》最新修訂中,除不能有效解决外傭對本港民生環境帶來的影響外,更加是對職業介紹所揠苗助長。

勞工處一直關注改善勞工權益,希望提升勞工保障以符合外國領事館的要求,特區政府可以考慮按國際公約的建議,在勞工的工作環境受到嚴重的污染、危險等因素影響,需要提供更為安全、健康的住宿環境時,提供相應的開銷支持。

參考自新加坡的資料,當地的外勞宿舍由新加坡職業安全與健康局(Ministry of Manpower, MOM)和新加坡房屋發展局(Housing and Development Board, HDB)共同管理。新加坡的百萬外勞中,有 20萬人住在 43 個「專門建造宿舍」,每個宿舍可容納逾千人,還有健身

房、雜貨店等。這些「專門建造宿舍」收費標準根據宿舍的位置、設施和房型等因素而有所不同。根據新加坡職業安全與健康局的規定,僱主需要為外籍工人的住宿提供適當的住宿條件,如果僱主無法提供住宿,可以選擇安排他們入住政府的外勞宿舍。此外,新加坡政府還

鼓勵僱主為外籍工人提供更好的住宿條件,而官方提供的外勞宿舍僅作為臨時住宿的選擇。

《僱傭條例》第 62A 條頒布的《職業介紹所實務守則》(實務守則)本是用以供業界依循,以促進職業介紹所業界的專業水平和服務質素為目標,現在最新修訂建議的出發點卻放在針對外傭無理多次轉工(坊間形容為「跳工」問題)、財務機構資格(外傭借貸問題)、監管外傭宿舍(非法旅館問題),與《僱傭條例》第62A 條有所違背外,新修訂後的落腳點亦模糊不清,這些根本未能滿足市民對於公平正義的基本追求。

職業介紹所的應用範圍極為廣泛,早已滲透在工商百業運作的各個環節,充斥著市民生活的每個部分。特首李加超在施政報告中訂立績效指標(KPIs),積極招攬人才和企業到港,當中牽涉到的法律及勞工保障政策牽絲掛藤,並非單從《職業介紹所實務守則》修訂就能把問題解决及完善化。

推行「優化」 不可能一蹴而就,必須充分考慮社會氛圍、民眾意識、持份者習慣、勞動人口需要及經濟上的成本效益、商業運作的可行性乃至市場上是否具備合適的和諧方案等具體情況,更須在兼顧各方面訴求的基礎上,平衡勞動保護、經濟與社會目標三者之間的關係,特區政府應繼續投入資源加強公眾教育,並提供更適切的支援,加強社會各種力量的合作和協調,鼓勵業界及市民自發地維持勞資關係公平、和諧地持續發展。

外勞政策影響香港經濟與民生發展深遠,必需強化人力發展根基、建構公平合理社會,令香港保持繁榮穩定,以及有長遠和可持續發展,這才能達至「民有所呼,我有所應」的終極目標。

文:林夏瑤(《中國夢智庫》勞工及福利事務總監、國際家政服務業持續發展聯會創辦人)

文:丁煌(深圳大學基本法研究中心兼職研究員、經民聯港島支部主席,《中國夢智庫》主席)

《中國夢智庫》是一間扎根特區的非牟利團體;與心存熱誠的資深義工、專家與職業專業人士們合作,攜手「說好中國故事」。

*作者文章觀點,不代表《觀新聞》立場