Ignorance of the Law on the Hong Kong Beat
Allow me to begin with a hypothetical. Imagine a world in which police work was based on presumption rather than defence of the law. At times there might be sufficient coincidence of those two positions – should an offence be committed against you, now and then you might be protected under what could pass as fortification of the public good. But at others, many others, the good constable you meet could well presume that you are breaking the law, even when you’ve been the victim of harm. And because you could never judge which side of the presumption you might land on there is a very good chance you would be cowed into inaction, silence, sufferance.
When a state encourages police to act in this way the presumption tends to be increasingly arbitrary. We have a name for that – totalitarianism. But when it’s simply the case of officers on the beat being unaware of specific provisions under the law, and of particular policy directions laid down by the government, we should have a different name – wilful stupidity. Such is the state of Hong Kong’s street beat, wherein police officers have no idea they are trying to protect the illegal activities of employment agencies.
Now these are not just any employment agencies – that would make the situation far too obvious. They’re agencies that recruit foreign domestic helpers and bring them to Hong Kong. Anecdotal evidence, and quite a few documented cases, suggests that most of these agencies charge placement fees well over the legal limit, often involving large loans through allied companies in the Philippines, Nepal, India or Indonesia. That, in itself, is never investigated, but is not the point this time around.
What is particularly important, and what the police seem ignorant of, is that these agencies have a tendency to work as extensions of employer flippancy, often offering a sort of refund system under which an employer can chose up to three helpers through them if they’re not satisfied with the first. So far nothing illegal, but consider the women involved and the frequency of arbitrary dismissal and the word ‘unethical’ springs to mind. What is illegal is what happens to the women once they’re sacked.
Many employment agencies work like enforcers, collecting the dismissed helpers, making them stay at a particular boarding house for a fee, holding their passports and possibly – but not always – finding them a new employer. If no new employer can be found the women are driven to the airport, given their tickets for the next flight home and told to leave. Most of the helpers endure this through desperation and in the hope they might yet find a suitable employer. Many don’t.
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