This post was originally produced for Forbes.
Scott Stiles, 29, began learning about modern slavery while attending school at Brigham Young University – Hawaii. He decided to simply put slave traders out of business by competing with them in Hong Kong.
His thesis: both the workers caught in debt bondage and their domestic employers there are unsatisfied by the typical arrangements so why not provide competing services that both parties value? The new Fair Employment Agency was born.
The International Labour Organization estimates that 40 million people globally are subjected to some form of modern slavery, about 25 million of whom are subjected to forced labor. The other 15 million are in forced marriages.
The traditional employment model in Hong Kong starts in the Philippines and Indonesia where women, often living on less than $2 per day, are recruited with promises of almost unbelievable wages—about USD$500 per month. The women agree to pay $3,000 to $4,000 of their future wages to the employment agency, locking them into debt that they can barely hope to repay if all goes well.
It often doesn’t go well. Stiles says about 30 to 40% of domestic workers are fired by their employers before their initial contract expires. Out of work and deeply in debt, the domestic worker calls her employment agency for help only to learn that they can place her again—for another fee of about $1,500—even though the balance of the original fee remains unpaid.
The new fee must be paid in cash so the agency will direct the worker to a lender who will provide the money at an interest rate of 59.9%, “the most common number for these loans,” Stiles says.
Now the worker is trapped with no reasonable way out.
Caroline Kracht, a mentor and advisor to Fair Employment Agency, explained by email:
FAIR to date has placed >2,000 domestic workers without charging them placement fees and indebting them to their employment agencies and forcing them to work to pay off this debt. At the same time FAIR does two more things:
- FAIR gives the domestic workers they place a better start to their employment by preparing them for their new job and the new environment they’ll be joining (new country, new living environment and standards, employer expectations), as well as educating them on their rights and where to turn to in conflict situations.
- FAIR has recognized that many employment situations deteriorate because employers don’t have sufficient management skills or haven’t had much precious experience managing staff. FAIR helps employers become better managers by teaching them about some of the common pitfalls, many of which are grounded in misunderstandings and/or a lack of trust and open communication channels between employer and employee. FAIR provides both employers and employees a better start to the working relationship, and by doing so achieves industry leading employment statistics in terms of the low percentage of failed or terminated employment contracts.
Now, when a woman placed by Fair Employment Agency finds herself in an untenable position, she can quit and get a help from them to find a better one. She’s not trapped by her circumstances.
The training helps, too. Stiles explains a typical trouble spot. The new domestic helper, unable to read care instruction tags on clothes might launder a shirt wrong. Which one? The employer’s favorite or most expensive shirt–the one that needs special care.
Seeing the damage, the employee might throw the shirt out, fearing a conflict with the employer, who notices the expensive shirt is missing and having had no explanation, concludes that the helper stole the shirt, leading to an end to the employment arrangement and a catastrophe for the family of the helper.
By helping the domestic workers and their employers both to improve communication, they avoid many of the challenges that bring an end to the contracts.
Ending a contract early can be perilous for the helper as Jane McBride, a long-term Hong Kong resident and employer of domestic helpers, learned. Having hired several but always workers who had successfully completed contracts, McBride wanted to hire a woman who was working for someone else.
McBride, a lawyer, reviewed the employment contract and noted a 30-day notice requirement for termination and suggested the woman give her notice. She was deported for breaking her contract.
“When the rest of us give the requisite notice under our employment contracts to our employers, we are simply exercising our contractual right to resign and there are no negative connotations. We simply find a new job (and transfer our working visas to our new employers if we are not permanent residents). A helper who resigns mid-contract is ‘breaking’ her contract, i.e., doing something bad, and the fact is her visa cannot be transferred. She must go back to her country and start the whole process again.”
McBride learned that the agencies play a pivotal role in determining residency. The more she researched, however, the more she appreciated that their business practices were typically unethical. Some of their practices are illegal but the domestic workers aren’t in a position to know let alone enforce the law.
She began looking for a reputable one that she could use for her next placement. A Google search turned up Fair Employment Agency. “I think they do a great job. They treated my helper with respect and as an employee and not as a slave. Hopefully, their business will thrive and other agents will follow and employers will stop using the bad agents,” McBride said.
Stiles, for his part, is optimistic. “This is a completely solvable crisis. Some world problems are far more complex. This one is not.” Almost 25 million people hope he’s right.
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