One of the most common problems migrant workers present to us at Justice Without Borders (JWB) is illegal employment agency fees. Agents in the worker’s home country and abroad can and do charge far more than they are allowed by law.
Our work has focused mostly on recovery abroad, where agents usually collect these fees for their and their partners’ use back home. Success means compensation for workers who had already returned home.
In August, we turned the tables, handling our very first batch of ‘reverse cross-border’ cases that saw civil action against an employment agency in the home country of Indonesia, while the workers were still working in Hong Kong. Together, 16 foreign domestic workers (FDWs) claimed together against the same agency!
The effort was a classic example of how JWB is opening new pathways to access to justice for migrant workers. Leading a team effort across an entire migration route, JWB offices in Hong Kong and Indonesia worked with our local Indonesian partners Serikat Buruh Migran Indonesia (SBMI) and Badan Nasional Penempatan Dan Perlindungan Tenaga Kerja Indonesia (BNP2TKI) to extract settlements for the workers. SBMI is the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union while BNP2TKI is the national agency for the placement and protection of Indonesian workers.
It all started from a referral from a migrant worker union activist in Hong Kong who knew a group of FDW friends overcharged by their agency in Indonesia. JWB found 16 such FDWs still working in Hong Kong who had registered with the same placement agency in Indonesia and wanting to pursue their case. All had paid fees amounting to at least 3 times their monthly salary, well beyond the legal limit set under Indonesia law.
JWB’s next step was to contact SBMI in Jakarta to collaborate on the case. They also informed BNP2TKI which has the power to penalize agencies that break the law.
JWB and SBMI then contacted the Indonesian placement agency to start the mediation process facilitated by BNP2TKI. The meeting was held at the SBMI office in Jakarta.
After a protracted mediation process, the agency finally agreed to return the excess placement fees to all 16 FDWs. It also agreed to provide a list of migrant workers who were employed during the same period as the 16 migrant workers for further investigation. The agency also received a verbal warning by BNP2TKI not to repeat the overcharging act or face suspension of their license.
“The success of this new kind of cross-border case represents important progress for JWB and our sector in terms of strategic legal remedies. We look forward to turning this extraordinary outcome into a tried and true practice for all such cases we and our partners encounter,“ said Douglas MacLean, Executor Director for JWB.
Upon conclusion of the case, one client conveyed her gratitude to the team, “To SBMI, JWB and all the teams in Indonesia who have helped me and my friends, thank you very much…we cannot repay all the goodness you have given. Once again, thank you so much!”