Following the MSAR’s new restrictions on the duration of stay for non-resident workers who leave their place of employment, migrant workers are more likely to cling to recruitment agencies in hopes of finding immediate employment.
Yet these firms are the stuff of horror stories. Indonesian domestic helpers complain of paying placement fees ranging between MOP2,500 and MOP3,000 a month – totaling almost MOP24,000 for an eight-month period – while Filipino helpers reportedly fork out a one-time payment of up to MOP5,500.
Some recruitment agencies refused to assist victims altogether. A few such firms require a non-refundable payment just for a chance to be interviewed by a potential employer.
Yosa Wariyanti, president of the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union, revealed that around 10 Indonesian helpers sought the association’s assistance this year regarding their mistreatment at the hands of employers. These individuals were refused help from the same recruitment agencies through which they were hired.
According to Wariyanti, the recruitment agencies were unwilling to help the victims of maltreatment, even in cases where employers refused to grant them a day off.
“[The agencies] keep their passports. Some agencies only give them part-time [jobs] until the visa for two months is finished,” she told the Times.
Waranti said she is aware of cases where an employer fires their helper and the agency adds an extra two-month fee, forcing the helper to give up a total of ten months’ salary.
“If they don’t want to continue with this agency or if they choose to find another agency, they must pay around MOP16,000.”
These abusive practices are also common in Hong Kong.
Hans Ladegaard, Head of English at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, has written a book that examines the patterns and causes of helper abuse in Hong Kong, involving more than 300 domestic workers.
“In the 300-plus stories I have recorded in Hong Kong, I do not have a single example to show that a helper received any help from the agency to which she has paid almost her entire salary for half a year or more,” Ladegaard stated in a report by the South China Morning Post.
According to the report, most agencies in Hong Kong offer a “buy one, get one free” deal, which permits employers to try one or more helper for three months with no additional fees.
Although most agencies in Macau place notices outside their doors that state “We will not help foreigners who hold travel visas to find a job”, or “Tourist visa holders cannot apply for jobs in Macau”, for some agencies, these are just for show.
As tourist visa holders in Macau are not encouraged to seek jobs, most have to accept any offer they can get from the agencies despite the large fees they incur, especially when their visas are about to expire.
Meanwhile, the duration of stay for non-resident workers who have been in the MSAR for more than six months, and whose contract has been terminated or run its course, has been reduced to eight days. This means migrant workers face greater pressure to find employment quickly.
Melody Lu, an assistant professor of the Department of Sociology at the University of Macau argued that this policy would leave migrant workers more vulnerable.
“We already know the common practice right now: that migrant workers always find a way to start looking for a job; and [when] you make the [allowed stay] shorter, you just make them more vulnerable for they will feel obliged to accept undesirable working conditions,” she told the Times.
“Or they will […] pay for the higher fee next time to brokers that will put them in debt. […] So this measure of shortening the days is not going to be effective in controlling illegal migration but […] you make them more vulnerable, you make the gray area much more visible.”
The Times visited several local recruitment agencies, but only a few agreed to an interview. Some claimed that they only accept payments from employers, not employees.
“We only accept payments from local employers and help them process the documents in the immigration,” claimed one agent.
“The employers shoulder the fee for its employees,” said another.
These agencies said they had only asked employers to pay them around MOP1,000.
However, a few Filipino domestic migrant workers outside the same recruitment centers said they were required to pay up to MOP5,500 or an amount equivalent to one month’s salary.
“If you’re really looking for a job, you would really grab it despite the amount, because you need it,” said a worker who did not want to be identified. She previously worked as a domestic employee in Hong Kong.
Questioned on the differences between contracts in Hong Kong and Macau, she lamented that, “in Hong Kong, contracts are submitted to immigration, so the employers follow the contract. Here in Macau, only a few employers follow what is written in the contract.”
She added that the six-month ban is problematic for domestic workers, particularly if there are no grounds for the ban.
The Labour Affairs Bureau (DSAL) said it plans to “solve the problem of non-residents entering the region as visitors and then switching to non-resident workers.”
The bureau said it plans to work with the Public Security Police Force (PSP) to require non-residents engaged in non-specialized and domestic work to hold a work-related permit issued by the Macau immigration authorities before entering the region and being granted a “stay permit as worker.”
In a reply to the Times, DSAL claimed that the measure distinguishes between non-residents entering Macau for work-related purposes instead of tourism.
“It will help to strengthen the importation management of non-specialized and domestic workers,” the bureau noted, adding that it is in contact with other departments regarding improvements to relevant laws and regulations.
However, Melody Lu argued that such policies would mean that employers would not be able to choose employees, and vice versa.
She added that the proposed policies would increase the risks of not finding a suitable migrant worker, and increase agency costs.
“The [agency fee] has to be shared between the employer and the employee because if you only [assign] all the risk and the fee to the workers, and the documentation to the migrant workers, I can tell you none of them will come to Macau,” the professor argued.
The scholar also reasoned that while the local government aims to protect local jobs, it should separate domestic work from other employment sectors.
As local residents refuse to work for wages as low as those of foreign domestic workers, Lu stressed that Macau is quite dependent on domestic work, citing the huge demand for female labor in the hospitality and gaming industries.
“At the moment, Macau’s wage is way lower than Hong Kong and Taiwan […] The laws in Taiwan and Hong Kong offer more protection in terms of labor law and human rights,” she said.
“So if you’re paying less and it is more difficult, they can’t change employer, or they have a risk of these [rights violations], who would want to come to Macau?”
Lu concluded that that if such policies must be revised, laws such as an increase in salaries and housing allowances, along with a protection law should be implemented.
“Otherwise none of [the] migrant workers will come for sure. If they don’t come, how can Macau be ready to handle that?”
The scholar reiterated her belief that the government must first devise measures to protect migrant workers before tightening industry regulations.