Hong Kong immigration officials rejected work applications from more than 300 "job-hopping" foreign domestic helpers last year, almost double the 2018 figure, the city's security minister has revealed.
But the Asian Migrants Coordinating Body reacted angrily to suggestions that helpers were switching jobs specifically to secure severance payments, calling the reported practice a myth and one that fostered discrimination in the 400,000-strong workforce.
The Immigration Department in 2020 denied visa applications from 319 domestic workers believed to have engaged in job hopping, Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu told a Legislative Council meeting on Wednesday. The figure marked a rise from 267 in 2019 and 165 the previous year.
Some employers have for many years accused domestic workers of frequently changing who they worked for without valid reason as part of a strategy to collect a series of severance payments.
The coronavirus crisis and associated shortage of helpers had encouraged the practice, they said, by driving up the wages that better-off employers were willing to offer those already with work.
Lee revealed the number of visa denials in response to questions from pro-Beijing lawmaker Priscilla Leung Mei-fun, who noted employers faced hefty expenses when taking on new helpers, including large hotel bills for recruits' 21-day compulsory Covid-19 quarantine on arrival to the city.
"In the event that (the helpers) prematurely terminate their employment contracts or deliberately perform badly to force employers to fire them so as to change employers (commonly known as "job-hopping"), the employers concerned will suffer great financial losses," she wrote in her question.
Hitting back at the accusations, Eman Villanueva, spokesman of the Asian Migrants Coordinating Body, which represents the city's domestic workers, said: "It's a myth. It's basically a made-up story.
"If a worker terminates the contract, he or she is required (by law) to return to their country first even if they have already found a new employer. If this person goes home, he or she will have to go through the same process to come back and pay the employment agency about HK$10,000 (US$1,290).
The city's statutory minimum wage for helpers is HK$4,630 a month, which the government decided to freeze last September following an annual review, citing the economic slump caused by the pandemic.
Villanueva, who is a domestic worker himself, said even if some domestic workers had switched to employers paying higher wages, there was nothing wrong in pursuing better pay, as many Hongkongers routinely did.
"Why are domestic workers being punished for this? Our message ... is that (the lawmakers) have the mentality of slave masters. One cannot leave his or her employer? That's slavery."
Jimmy Ng Wing-ka, another pro-Beijing lawmaker, urged the government to boost the number of helpers coming to Hong Kong, while legislator Tony Tse wai-chuen suggested more training for locals in an effort to reduce the reliance on foreign labour.
Law Chi-kwong, the labour and welfare minister, said on Wednesday the government was exploring bringing in domestic workers from Myanmar, but added the pandemic had hindered progress.
Hong Kong needed its helper workforce to increase to 600,000 within 30 years because of the city's ageing population, Law told the Post earlier.
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