Legal changes to strengthen the regulation of employment agencies were approved by the Legislative Council on Thursday, however domestic workers still fear that agencies will overcharge them on fees for various administrative measures.

Penalties for agents who overcharge people seeking jobs are set to jump, with the maximum fine raised from HK$50,000 to $350,000 – and up to three years in jail, after the Employment (Amendment) (No.2) Bill 2017 was passed.

Indonesian domestic worker Marlina, who worked in Hong Kong for four months, was hit by a claim from a loan company that she owed an employment agency HK$15,000 (US$1,918), broadcaster nowTV News reported.

Marlina was asked to go to the agency and pay HK$2,600 over a period of six months.

“If we do not pay, it would be a big problem. They will tell our bosses and probably [our employment contracts] would be terminated,” Marlina said.

Marlina said she did not sign any loan documents in Indonesia or Hong Kong. She suspected the employment agency colluded with the financial institution to charge an excessive placement fee and call it a debt.

A union for Indonesian domestic workers said they received seven similar complaints in January. In each case, the domestic workers were asked to pay around a placement fee of about HK$10,000. But the law in Hong Kong only allows agents to charge 10% of the worker’s first month’s salary.

Over the past three years, the Labour Department received over 700 complaints about overcharging – 108 cases in 2015, 535 cases in 2016 and 87 cases in 2017.

But just a small number of agencies were prosecuted by the authorities over the same period (16). Nine agencies were fined in 2015, with five more fined in 2016 and only two agencies last year. The average fine was just HK$8,000.

Umi Sudarto, director of Indonesian domestic workers group Kobumi, said she was happy to hear the government had increased the penalties for overcharging.

But she said they still worried that employment agencies would charge workers for various administration fees. For example, the fee for an ID card or staying at a boarding home when workers need to look for employers.

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