When her plane touched down in Hong Kong last December, Chamila was full of hope. She had an employment contract as a domestic worker and an expectation of a better life not only for herself, but also for her sick daughter back home in Sri Lanka.
Ten days later, Chamila lay unconscious on the floor after swallowing handfuls of prescription pills in the office of Carven Employment, the Hong Kong agency that had organised her employment in collaboration with Sri Lanka-based agency Win Win Go Travel.
In the harrowing days before her suicide attempt, the 35-year-old says she was stripped of her passport and personal belongings, forced to work for 21 consecutive hours for an abusive employer, and starved for two full days. Sick and barely able to stand from exhaustion, Chamila told her employer she was too weak to continue working, only to be sent back to the agency’s office.
At the office, Chamila says she was scolded by an agency supervisor, who then smashed Chamila’s mobile phone on a table. As Chamila tried to leave, screaming for help from passersby, the supervisor slammed Chamila’s leg in the office door before locking her inside the room.
In despair, Chamila grabbed 15 Ventolin tablets – prescribed to treat asthma – from her handbag and gulped them down. Rather than attempt to stop her, the supervisor filmed her suicide attempt on a mobile phone.
Police and paramedics arrived after a call from a passerby, who had heard Chamila’s call for help. The emergency team took her to hospital for treatment.
In Hong Kong, a city that prides itself on its rule of law and regard for basic rights, Chamila’s shocking experience may sound like an anomaly. But according to human rights lawyers and advocates, it is a scenario that is increasingly widespread.
Trafficking in Hong Kong
Chamila is one of thousands of women from Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and the Philippines who human rights groups say pay large and often exorbitant sums to employment agencies on the promise of well-paid jobs in Hong Kong, only to find themselves ensnared in conditions of modern-day slavery. According to The Global Slavery Index 2018, more than 10,000 people are held in conditions of slavery in Hong Kong – a number that includes domestic workers, labourers and prostitutes.
Many eventually manage to return home, albeit humiliated and heavily in debt. But Chamila decided to stay. She received assistance from the Sri Lankan Buddhist Cultural Centre Hong Kong, which put her up in a shelter so she could fight for compensation alongside two other women recruited by the same agency.
With the support of human rights law firm Daly & Associates, the three women argue they are the victims of crimes that sit uncomfortably with Hong Kong’s self-proclaimed status as Asia’s World City: forced labour and human trafficking.
Their claims come at a time when the government has been resisting calls for a specific anti-trafficking law. The government has issued statements insisting human trafficking is not common in the city, and that the existing legal framework adequately tackles the issue.
Such a stance is at odds with a number of critical reports: In 2016, the Global Slavory Index counted an estimated 29,500 victims of human trafficking in Hong Kong. The US State Department’s 2018 Trafficking in Persons annual report places Hong Kong on the Tier 2 Watch List for the third consecutive year, alongside countries such as Bangladesh, Mali, Sudan, Iraq, and Zimbabwe.
The city ranks below the majority of Western European countries like France, Germany, Spain and Italy, which have a Tier 1 ranking. It’s even ranked lower than Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Indonesia – all Tier 2 nations but not on the Watch List.
In March, a lawmaker with two legal practitioners proposed a new bill to ensure higher transparency from employment agencies and throughout the supply chain, as well as to prescribe criminal offences for slavery, human trafficking, sex tourism and forced marriage. But the draft bill has been criticised for falling short. It failed to offer any protection to victims through assistance, and has yet to be effectively implemented. For the city’s 370,000 foreign domestic workers, that support is essential.
International human trafficking expert Matt Friedman, who is the CEO of anti-slavery group The Mekong Club and the former regional project manager of the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking, has called for an urgent review of the government’s position.
“Even if the government feels it’s not a major problem, there should still be laws in place that are consistent with international standards found throughout the region and the world. It is simply the right thing to do,” says Friedman.
According to Friedman, the Hong Kong government underestimates the extent of the issue. “They say the number of human trafficking cases annually is very low – less than 10 [reported cases]. However, according to the NGO community, there were up to 60 cases last year alone [where victims came forward].”
In addition, the government’s current action plan, introduced in March 2018, does not clearly outline what happens to a trafficked person after they have been identified. “The government is missing one of the most important aspects of a human trafficking law: protecting the victims,” adds Friedman. “A comprehensive law would help domestic helpers, sex workers and labourers who are in slavery-like conditions within Hong Kong.”
Bait and switch
Chamila’s story is a familiar one. The same agencies, Carven Employment and Win Win Go Travel, brought Kumudu, aged 41, to Hong Kong. Kumudu claims Win Win Go told her she’d receive a monthly salary of HK$4,200 – more than twice the minimum wage in Sri Lanka – working for a family of five. She paid the equivalent of HK$14,500 up-front for the placement.
Shortly before leaving Sri Lanka, however, Kumudu says the agency changed the arrangements, announcing that she would work for two elderly people instead. If she didn’t agree, she’d lose her chance to work in Hong Kong.
With her future on the line, Kumudu accepted. She arrived in Hong Kong in October last year. At the airport, Kumudu says an agency representative asked her to hand over her employment contract and passport, then took her to the agency’s boarding house. For the next four days, she received no money for meals but was instructed to clean.
According to Kumudu’s testimony, she was eventually taken to her employer’s house. For the next month she claims she was physically and sexually abused by the employer’s elderly parents. Kumudu says she suffered extensive bruising and cuts after being repeatedly struck with the father’s walker. When she protested to the agency, Kumudu says she was told the assaults were “not of a serious nature” and was sent back to the employer.
Things escalated, Kumudu says, when the elderly man asked her to assist him in the shower. She claims that he ordered her to touch him intimately and molested her whenever she was in reach, throwing items at her and verbally abusing her if she resisted.
When she eventually complained about the sexual and physical abuse, the employer returned her to the Hong Kong agency. At Carven Employment, Kumudu says she was pressured to sign documents without a chance to read them. When she asked to go to the police, a representative returned Kumudu’s passport and employment contract and ordered her to leave without pay or entitlements.
Distraught, Kumudu was taken by a friend to the Kowloon police station to file a complaint. She says the police claimed it was “not a matter” for them, recommending that she approach the labour department for assistance.
After seeking refuge at the Christian Action Shelter, she was taken to Wong Tai Sin police station, where she lodged a report and was sent to the hospital to have her injuries examined.
On the brink of collapse
Nirmala, a smartly dressed 51-year-old grandmother, seems an unlikely victim of trafficking. Like the other two women, however, she quickly found herself in a desperate situation after arriving in Hong Kong.
“We had a lot of financial difficulties at home,” she recalls. “My husband was ill and unable to work. My daughter was also ill… she had a 12-year-old son who I had to take care of as well.”
At the agency’s offices in Sri Lanka, Nirmala changed into an apron to film a video for prospective employers. Nirmala says she was asked to pay HK$2,900 if there was an offer of employment, and a further HK$11,600 before departing.
“Two days later, I took out a loan for 300,000 rupees (approximately HK$14,300),” says Nirmala.
Within about three weeks, Nirmala says the agency found a placement – a family with a young child. After paying the instalment, three to four months passed with no news. Finally, she says the agency told her they had found a different employer. This time, it was an elderly disabled person.
“I was a little worried about that, but they told me I would be able to earn HK$4,300 per month, in addition to food and a room at my employer’s house,” she says. “By that time, the interest on my loan was accruing, so I thought the only option was to agree.”
Nirmala arrived in Hong Kong late last year. A representative from the agency collected her at the airport, then took her to a garage in Kwun Tong where 12 other migrant workers were staying. “I had to sleep sitting on the floor because there was no space,” she says. “None of us received any food. The next morning, I bought two buns with money I brought with me. It was my first meal in Hong Kong.”
Two days later, she says the agency sent her to a flat in Sha Tin where her employer’s secretary instructed Nirmala to do housework all day, and then stay awake to continually massage her elderly disabled employer from 9pm to 8am.
“Every time I slowed down or stopped, my employer would shout at me. I wasn’t allowed to leave the room,” she says. The next day, as she bathed the elderly woman, Nirmala collapsed, which unleashed a string of verbal abuse from her employer.
Only then did Nirmala phone 999. An ambulance rushed her to hospital where she was treated overnight for pain and exhaustion. Nirmala attempted to return to work, but the employer fired her. She says the agency denied Nirmala shelter and left her on the streets with her belongings. It was then that Nirmala sought refuge at the Buddhist Shelter of Hong Kong.
A familiar story
The three Sri Lankan women share depressingly similar stories. Lured by TV adverts, they were recruited at home where they paid up-front agency fees of around HK$15,000 each with the promise of jobs looking after families with children in Hong Kong.
After arriving in the city, the women say they had to sleep on garage floors or in cramped boarding houses before being sent to abusive homes were they were sexually, verbally or physically assaulted. They report largely indifferent responses from the police when they eventually sought help.
Paralegal Manisha Wijeshinghe, of Daly & Associates, is helping the women fight cases against Win Win Go Travel, the Sri Lanka-based recruiter who brought them to Hong Kong in collaboration with sister agency Carven Employment. According to Wijeshinghe, the women’s placements were lucrative for the agencies despite the early termination.
“The agencies have already made their money with [the up-front] fees, so however long the women work here doesn’t matter – the agencies still make a profit,” she explains. “The employer pays the airfare. So for the agencies, it is more profitable if the women leave after a few days, because the employer has already paid and they can just get someone else.”
According to a representative of Win Win Go Travel, authorities stripped the agency of its licence in Sri Lanka, where the business is registered, following the police complaints in Hong Kong.
Fernando Joy, a Sri Lankan who works as a scuba diving instructor in Hong Kong and was described on business cards he distributed as Win Win Go Travel’s Managing Director, says the police did not interview him about the women’s allegations, despite being named the company owner in Chamila’s testimony. When contacted for comment via Facebook, Joy insisted he had no financial interest in Win Win Go and was helping an ex-girlfriend who owned the agency when the women were recruited.
Joy claims the complaints by Chamila, Nirmala and Kumudu are simply attempts to win compensation. He says some Sri Lankan domestic workers “make trouble” for their employers then “get help from NGOs and get compensation, and [then] get a new employer and come back to Hong Kong.” He suggests the women should return to Sri Lanka where the government is “very tough” in its approach to agencies, and seek compensation from Win Win Go from there.
Meanwhile, the Carven Employment supervisor involved in the overdose incident with Chamila in Hong Kong declined to answer questions about the treatment of Chamila and the other workers. She also declined to confirm that she had taken a video of Chamila as the worker swallowed pills in the agency’s Kowloon office. “I’m not in charge of this case,” she wrote in a text message later.
In a statement to Ariana magazine, Hong Kong police says it has investigated Kumudu’s case and classified it as assault, but has closed the investigation because there was insufficient evidence to press charges.
Meanwhile, the New Territories South Regional Crime Squad has been handling the cases involving Chamila and Nirmala. Chamila’s case had been classified as assault and Nirmala’s as labour exploitation. No arrest has been made so far, according to the police statement.
Hong Kong government officials declined requests for an interview on the issue. In an email, however, the Security Bureau insisted the government attached “great importance to tackling trafficking in persons” and referred to its action plan announced in March.
According to a statement, the plan comprises “a package of multi-faceted measures that are comprehensive, strategic and targeted, covering areas including victim identification, investigation, enforcement, prosecution, victim protection and support, prevention, and partnership with different stakeholders.”
A flawed system
Anecdotal evidence suggests there are many more victims who have since fled Hong Kong and returned to Sri Lanka, says Hong Kong-based human rights lawyer Patricia Ho.
Their treatment amounts to trafficking, Ho explains, because they were brought to Hong Kong under false pretexts and then abused and subjected to labour exploitation and forced labour. But with no law against trafficking, police and immigration officers are powerless to act, says Ho, who recalls how one police officer expressed frustration at the inability to intervene on behalf of the women.
As the current legal systems stand, police are unable to bring charges of human trafficking and forced labour because the offences do not exist under Hong Kong law. This, Ho says, is the biggest obstacle to winning justice for victims of such abuses and preventing trafficking in the first place.
Ho believes the government’s reliance on foreign domestic workers is one of the main reasons for the lack of legislation. “Domestic helpers are probably the cheapest solution for Hong Kong’s social needs,” she says. “The amount of money they save the government [in child care and social support costs] is enormous and [with working parents] even the housing market doesn’t function unless you have helpers.”
But a failure to legislate will only amplify the issue, she warns. “If it is easier to traffic people to Hong Kong than other countries, the city will become an increasingly attractive place for traffickers,” she adds. “The blatant refusal to acknowledge the positive duty placed on the government to criminalise human trafficking and forced labour puts Hong Kong in the same league as nations such as North Korea, the Maldives, and Bhutan, which are infamous for their human rights abuses.”
An uncertain future
As she prepares to fly home to her family in Sri Lanka while her case continues to be examined in Hong Kong, Nirmala admits she holds little hope of a happy outcome.
“My loans with interest have now grown from 300,000 rupees (approximately HK$14,300) to 660,000 rupees (approximately HK$31,600). I am unable to pay for my husband’s medication and I will find it difficult to keep my 12-year-old grandson in school,” she says.
“I went to Hong Kong for a better life. But instead my situation is far worse. I will tell people about what happened to me when I get home, because I don’t want this to see this happen to anyone else.”
Chamila, meanwhile, remains in a shelter in Hong Kong and is still recovering from the physical and psychological effects of her overdose. The pills damaged her oesophagus and she often experiences numbness in her hands and feet.
In the difficult months that followed her suicide attempt, Chamila has been provided with support and trauma counselling by Hong Kong NGO STOP (Stop Trafficking of Persons). Whether the Hong Kong government is prepared to extend the same compassion to Chamila and other modern-day slaves in Asia’s World City remains to be seen.
Efforts in Macao
Next door, Macao has made moves to implement more stringent anti-trafficking policies.
In the early 2000s, the Macao police reported a series of human trafficking incidents involving sexual exploitation. In many cases, minors and migrant workers replied to false job advertisements, only to arrive and find themselves forced into prostitution. In response, the government established an anti-trafficking law in 2008 with a goal to prevent trafficking, prosecute offenders, and protect victims.
The law criminalizes sex and labour trafficking, with a penalty of three to 15 years imprisonment. To support victims, The Women’s General Association of Macau (AGMM) provides a government-funded shelter as well as a 24-hour hotline where victims can report incidents without fear of repercussions.
The SAR remains on the Tier 2 Watch List in the 2018 Trafficking in Persons Report, published by the US State Department, despite improvements. However, the report acknowledges the “significant efforts” taken by Macao. These include “identifying victims of sex trafficking, partnering with an NGO to escort a child victim home, training numerous government officials, and allocating MOP 5.5 million (US$684,500) to victim protection services and prevention programs” between 1 April 2017 and 31 March 2018. In 2017, the government investigated three reported cases of sex trafficking but pursued no prosecutions.
A Fair Alternative
Lidia Garcia, branch manager of Fair Employment Agency (FEA), further explains the obstacles facing foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong.
Ariana: What have you witnessed while working with FEA?
Lidia Garcia: In my work, I meet migrant domestic workers in different parts of their migration experience. These workers are people, mostly women, who are doing everything they can to change the course of their lives and the lives of their children. They’re seeking better opportunities, taking up the challenge of migration, leaving family and friends behind, and working difficult jobs. But a broken market is failing them every step of the way.
Ariana: What obstacles do they face in Hong Kong?
Garcia: When employment agencies charge domestic helpers [for placements or training services], they are incentivised to place those who are willing to pay, rather than those who are right for the job. When a helper is fired or quits, the agency makes more money by charging replacement workers.
Meanwhile the domestic helper falls further into debt as she borrows more money to find a new job. This illegal practice leaves domestic helpers in debt and it fails employers. FEA was set up to be an antidote to this broken system and to set a new standard for employment agencies to follow.
Ariana: What’s the current legal framework?
Garcia: Hong Kong has a number of laws in place to protect migrant domestic workers, and the Philippines has a total ban on worker placement fees. In Hong Kong, we have laws for minimum wage and a standard contract for employment. Employee compensation is a legal requirement. Workers are legally entitled to a day off every week, and we have regulations to limit fees charged by employment agencies.
Ariana: What’s standing in the way of progress?
Garcia: There are over 1,400 employment agencies in Hong Kong. That’s more than the number of McDonalds, Starbucks and 7-Elevens combined. A key challenge for the Hong Kong government has been to enforce the laws and regulations.
Ariana: Is there any good news?
Garcia: We were encouraged to see the Hong Kong government take action earlier this year to enact the new code of conduct for employment agencies into law. This led to a seven-fold increase in penalties (amounting to US$44,000) and added a three-year imprisonment to agencies prosecuted for overcharging workers.
The government also established a task force to “Tackle Trafficking in Persons and to Enhance Protection of Foreign Domestic Helpers”. For the first time, lawmakers have acknowledged how vulnerable migrant workers are to forced labour. We feel optimistic about these steps.
Employment agencies in Hong Kong
The portion of a foreign domestic worker’s (FDW) first month’s salary an agency can legally collect
The average agency fee paid by FDW in Hong Kong
The number of workers the FEA has placed since 2014 without recruitment fees
The amount of recruitment debt avoided by these placements
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