By Eugean Lo and Jenna Yuen, JWB Pro Bono Legal Fellows
JWB Hong Kong has partnered with the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) and the Hong Kong branch of Serikat Buruh Migran Indonesia (SBMI) to support claims against unscrupulous employment agencies who overcharge workers in violation of the law.
Recently, SBMI client Sundari successfully claimed compensation in court against her former employment agency. Wong Man Chau, former licensee of Gold Union Employment Agency (GUEA), was convicted of overcharging Sundari, and was fined $9,000 by the Eastern Magistrates’ Court.
Special magistrate Robin Yue King-tin noted that the case reflected serious exploitation by GUEA. The agency intended to charge Sundari almost 32 times more than allowed by law, amounting to more than three months of Sundari’s salary. Thankfully, the Court ordered restitution for the amount Sundari had already paid, and cancelled her debt for the outstanding illegal fee. (Read more about Sundari’s case).
Hiding Illegal Agency Fees Within Personal Loans
As in many other cases, GUEA did not force Sundari to pay it directly. Instead, it made her take out a personal loan from a lending agency, totaling HK $15,000 (~ US $1,930) plus interest. GUEA would get its payment immediately, while Sundari would be left to cover the illegal agency fee over a period of months. Worse yet, Sundari could not read the papers she signed, but was led to believe that she could not work unless she agreed to the loan.
Sadly, Sundari is not the only victim of illegal agency fees. GUEA may well have overcharged a large number of workers, many of whom have already returned home with debts still outstanding. The cross-border nature of this issue brought us to Sundari’s case, as countless other workers may have been overcharged, but lack an effective means to take those agencies to court in Hong Kong after they return home.
With an eye towards helping other workers who have potential claims against GUEA, JWB helped prepare Sundari for her court hearing as a witness. Our involvement enabled us to assess the types of evidence available to prove this common practice, and to plan next steps for helping other workers who may have been victimized by GUEA or other unscrupulous employment agencies.
There is still much work to be done in seeking to hold bad agencies accountable, both in Hong Kong and in the clients’ home countries. JWB looks forward to working with our partners to help more migrant workers seek just compensation against these actors, whether here in Hong Kong or after they return home.