HONG KONG/BEIRUT: Worn out and empty, it was past midnight when Filipino maid Genelie Millan dragged herself back to her room, took out her phone to search for a way to escape her abusive employer — and came across a website that changed her life. HelperChoice is one of several online services cutting out the middleman — recruiters who charge would-be maids exorbitant fees – and helping them to avoid getting trapped in debt bondage to exploitative employers.
Since leaving her 11-year-old son in the Philippines to work in Hong Kong in 2010, Millan had been forced to sleep on a sofa and hit with a pair of chopsticks before finding the site which let her choose her own, more sympathetic boss. “They treat me like their family, they trust me a lot,” the 39-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
From Asia to the Middle East, thousands of migrant domestic workers are trapped in debt and cannot escape, even if they are abused, as they have to work to repay the recruiters that found them work and often make deductions from their monthly wages.
Affluent financial hub Hong Kong is one of the biggest destinations for maids in Asia, with some 370,000 women from the Philippines and Indonesia heading in large numbers to work there, according to government data.
Millan borrowed 100,000 Philippine pesos ($1,915) to pay recruiters when she moved to the southern Chinese city – a huge sum for someone from a poor Filipino family.
The Hong Kong-based HelperChoice website provides a platform for employers and helpers to connect directly and promises to help them find the “perfect match in an ethical way.”
For a fee starting at HK$350 ($45), potential employers can log on to the portal and access a database of job-seeking helpers to set up interviews. Helpers do not pay to register.
Employers can choose to pay more for additional services such as having the paperwork done on their behalf.
“It’s a win-win situation,” HelperChoice’s chief executive Alexandra Golovanow said, adding that both employers and helpers can keep looking until they find the right candidate.
The website, set up in 2012, has found jobs for about 8,000 maids, Golovanow said, adding that its popularity was due in part to heightened awareness about their mistreatment.
In Hong Kong, laws stipulate recruiters cannot charge more than 10 percent of a helper’s first month salary but a study by campaign group Rights Exposure showed in reality maids are often overcharged, sometimes 25 times the legally permitted amount.
“In some cases, employment agencies also take away their passport. Helpers just can’t leave because they have no paper, no documentations,” Golovanow said.
“This is modern slavery — people have no alternatives.”
A similar initiative, Hong Kong-based Fair Employment Agency (FEA) also allows employers and helpers to register online and only charges the bosses for the hiring.
Unlike HelperChoice, a team of staff at FEA help match maids to bosses based on criteria they have entered on their profile.
The FEA has placed 2,000 helpers with employers since it was set up in 2015 and estimates it has saved these workers altogether some $3 million — money which would otherwise have gone to recruiters.
“Right now the reason why recruitment is so mired in these unethical things is because there are too many players and no accountability,” said Victoria Ahn from the Fair Employment Foundation, which runs the FEA project.
“Technology will play a huge role in clearing that up and reducing the number of players.”
Despite such efforts to clean up the industry, activists say the multimillion-dollar recruitment trade will continue and the government must step up its actions against unscrupulous firms.
Of about 3,000 recruitment agencies in Hong Kong, the government told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that 42 were convicted between 2012 and 2017 for violating laws, but it did not specify if the convictions were related to overcharging.
“Vigorous enforcement action will be taken out against any employment agencies’ contravention to the law,” a spokesman from the labor department said in emailed comments.
Hong Kong this year introduced laws with heavier fines and three-year prison terms for recruiters overcharging helpers.
Such initiatives are also slowly making inroads in the Middle East, which is known for its notorious “kafala” sponsorship system that binds migrant workers to one employer.
The controversial system has long been criticized by activists for exploiting workers and denying them the ability to travel or change jobs without their employer’s consent.
Filipino helper Sheryl Cruz, who is based in Qatar, found out about HelperChoice through Facebook when she was searching for a job after her employer died from cancer in 2016.
Reluctant to go a recruitment agency that would give her no say in who she could work for, she used the portal to connect with a Pakistani family in the Gulf kingdom looking for a maid.
“You can see all the (employers) and what they are looking for and contact them directly,” the 31-year-old said.
Cruz, who has 12 years experience as a domestic worker, felt empowered as, for the first time, she was able to set her own terms when negotiating for the new job — she asked for a day off and a higher salary.
“I felt good setting my salary,” she said.
For Millan in Hong Kong, HelperChoice was a godsend.
Living with a boss she likes is a big change, having begged a previous employer to treat her “as a person, not an animal.”
Despite all the hardship, she does not think about quitting.
“I always think about my son — my son’s future,” she said, smiling at other domestic workers who, like her, were enjoying a Sunday break in a Hong Kong park.