A domestic helper leaves her home country in search of higher salaries in places like Hong Kong, Singapore or the Middle East, but instead of sending money home to her family, she faces abuse, unpaid wages and crushing debt.
It's not a new story, although it played out much more publicly than usual earlier this year in Hong Kong, when employer Law Wan-tung was sentenced to six years in jail for severely abusing and failing to pay Indonesian helper Erwiana Sulistyaningsih.
But even the international uproar over that case hasn't spurred changes to how Hong Kong regulates the employment agencies.
Although Erwiana had attempted to flee the abuse, when she contacted her employment agency, the office told her it wouldn't help and sent her back because she hadn't finished paying off the debt from her placement fees.
"It's frustrating as a lawyer," said David Bishop, one of Fair Employment Agency's (FEA) founders and a lecturer at the University of Hong Kong. Over the years, many placement agencies have continually shifted strategies to squeeze more profit from helpers, from charging placement fees, then training fees, then loans, with some using cross-border jurisdictional limits to evade liability, he said.
That frustration spurred a drive to find an entrepreneurial solution, leading to the creation of the nonprofit FEA, which charges employers, but not helpers, for placements.
"The incentive of most agencies is they make more money and are more profitable if they place more workers. They do better if they do a bad job," because they can charge the replacement helper another fee, said Bishop.
The fees can become a huge burden for workers, saddling them with a suffocating debt load.
In Hong Kong, domestic helpers can typically be charged around 31,000 to 37,000 Hong Kong dollars ($4,000-$4,700) in total, according to Hong Kong-based non-governmental organization (NGO) Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants (APMM). That compares with the city's minimum monthly wage of 4,110 Hong Kong dollars ($530).
The placement fee in Hong Kong is supposed to be set at 10 percent of the first month's salary, but the government there has little way to police fees charged in workers' home countries.
By comparison, in the Philippines, the median salary for a housekeeper is around 129,000 pesos, or less than $3,000, a year, according to PayScale, a compensation data provider.