Tackling Forced Labour with Market Solutions

Written by Lidia Garcia //

Each year, millions of migrant workers leave their home countries in search of better opportunities to support themselves and their loved ones back home. In doing so, many of them are taken advantage of by the very same agencies which give them the chance of a lifetime to change their future and the future of their families.

Currently, over 24.9 million people are in forced labour across the world (ILO, 2017). Out of them, 50% are debt bonded to their jobs, meaning they cannot leave their jobs because of large debts incurred in the recruitment process. Forced labour is most prevalent in the Asia Pacific region, affecting various industries including construction, domestic work, fishing, hospitality, and manufacturing. Female migrant domestic workers are the most affected group.

Like many high-income Asian countries, Hong Kong is reliant on migrant domestic workers, currently hosting over 370,000, largely from the Philippines and Indonesia. On average, these migrant domestic workers borrow over US$1500 for recruitment fees (two years’ salary in their home country). Excessive and illegal, recruitment fees charged by unethical agencies have left migrant workers vulnerable to debt bondage and forced labour exploitation. 31% of domestic workers reported no choice but to stay with the same employer because of money paid for their job (Seefar, 2016). Abuse is well-documented, and, in recent years, there have been a number of international headline-grabbing cases.

For too long this worker-pays model has failed workers and employers alike, with both parts losing out and getting taken advantage of by employment agencies and the system they work within. This system has incentivised agencies to place more workers, rather than the right worker, for profit.

At Fair Employment Agency, we believe that this broken market can be fixed with market solutions. We are a non-profit employment agency placing Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong. Our plan is to beat exploitative agencies at their own game by charging employers a market rate for great service, and having workers pay nothing! Since opening our doors in 2014, we have become a top 10 sized agency in Hong Kong; saved over 2,000 workers an estimated US$3 million in recruitment debt; raised US$2 million in revenue; are on target to become a break-even business by 2018; and have seen the market shift from a worker-pays model toward an employer-pays one.

Empowering Women through Economic Justice

As the Branch Manager of the Fair Employment Agency and, previously, Programme Manager for the Foundation, I am very fortunate to work on creating and growing business initiatives aimed at eradicating forced labour.

Migrant domestic workers are people, largely women, who are doing everything they can to change the course of their lives and the lives of their children: seeking better opportunities, taking up the challenge of migration, leaving family and friends behind, and working hard at difficult jobs. But a broken market is failing them every step of the way.

Three years ago, we opened the agency’s doors, as one out of almost 1400 employment agencies in Hong Kong. Now, we are a growing team of 20 empathetic and hardworking individuals, and we believe, more than ever, that forced labour is a solvable problem. 2000 women have been placed at jobs through FEA, free from recruitment debt and free to leave abusive employment situations should they arise. That’s an estimated 500 years of forced labour avoided. Considering that one domestic worker supports approximately five family members back home, FEA has directly impacted the life and economic situation of over 10,000 people during its three years of existence!

And our impact doesn’t end there! During my time at Fair Employment Foundation, I was directly involved in the creation and opening of the Fair Employment Training & Assessment Center (FTC) in Manila. It was at the training center where I experienced first-hand how social business can completely transform lives in the course of days. The training center, being the second social business initiative of the Foundation, was created as a market solution to a market failure: the unreasonably high domestic worker termination rates in Hong Kong, where 35-40% of first-time migrant workers are  terminated before they finish their first two-year contract (Fair Employment Foundation, 2017).

Through an innovative curriculum focused on attitude,communication, and experienced former domestic workers as trainers and mentors, FTC really does prepare first-time migrant domestic workers for successful migration. Trainees enter the training center feeling nervous,thinking of themselves as ‘just’ domestic helpers and graduate a mere two weeks later as proud and confident professionals ready to take on the migration challenge. These transformations are amazing to observe and have made a huge impact on me and my belief in creating social change through empowerment. As of today, the Fair Employment Training & Assessment Center has successfully trained over 150 domestic workers and drecreased termination rate to 10%.

In addition to this, I am also very proud of the direct impact of Fair businesses on the empowerment of women across Hong Kong and the Philippines. As a consequence of the feminization of domestic work, the vast majority of migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong are women. In the same way, most employers actively managing domestic workers tend to be female too. By creating a better and fairer recruitment system for migrant domestic workers, FEA not only benefits them and their families, but also supports female employers in the Hong Kong workforce. The result is an empowered female population in Hong Kong and the Philippines, working as a driving force towards gender equality and social justice.

At the core of our company culture at Fair is a quote by Margaret Mead saying, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens can change world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” Market disruption is a gritty business, but it really is a pleasure and an honor to work on a solvable world problem with this small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens.

ILO, 2017 – http://www.ilo.org/global/topics/forced-labour/lang–en/index.htm
Seefar, 2016 – http://modernslavery.seefar.org/
Fair Employment Foundation – 2020 Vision


Lidia Garcia heads up the Fair Employment Agency team and manages the day-to-day operations. She first came in contact with migrant domestic worker issues and policies while interning at the Swedish Embassy in Indonesia. Lidia first joined Fair Employment Agency (FEA) in 2015 to volunteer her Bahasa-Indonesia language skills and learn more about the inner workings of social business. She officially joined the Fair Employment Foundation (FEF) as Programme Manager a few months later, and has since then been involved in all aspects of Fair initiatives to tackle the issue of forced labour among migrant domestic workers. Lidia majored in Political Science at Lund University, Sweden, specializing in International Relations from a Gender Perspective.

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