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Unchecked trafficking takes a human toll in Hong Kong

In Hong Kong, up to 9,000 migrant workers could be victims of human trafficking. We speak with the Justice Centre’s Rachel Li to find out why.

This June, the US Department of State released the 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report, which downgraded Hong Kong from its Tier 2 position in 2019 to the Tier 2 Watch List. Essentially, this means that Hong Kong failed to “demonstrate overall increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period,” states the report.

The report criticises the Hong Kong authorities for not “fully meeting the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking” and failing to “investigate, prosecute, or convict any cases of labor trafficking.” 

In addition, the report states that Hong Kong investigated significantly fewer cases related to sex trafficking compared to the previous year due to an “ineffective implementation of the screening mechanism”.  

Since 2017, Hong Kong authorities have been using a two-tiered victim identification mechanism to screen potential human-trafficking victims. However, critics argue that the screening fails to reflect the full picture, identifying low numbers of trafficking victims. In 2016 and 2017, the system identified 36 and 28 victims, respectively. In 2018, the number dropped to 18 and, in 2019, it reached a new low of 3. 

The report found that Hong Kong authorities did not provide any government-funded services to victims, as well as a general lack of understanding when it comes to the “psychological trauma associated with trafficking.”  

In response, a government spokesperson said that Hong Kong authorities “strongly object” the report and insisted that the government is working to combat trafficking-in-persons. The spokesperson also said that human trafficking “has never been a prevalent problem in Hong Kong”, since only a small number of victims have been identified in screenings conducted by the Hong Kong Police Force and the Immigration Department. 

However, according to various studies conducted by Justice Centre Hong Kong, a Hong Kong-based non-profit human rights organisation, the crimes of human trafficking in Hong Kong may be more common than the government states. On the contrary, the NGO believes that Hong Kong is a transit hub for human trafficking. 

Ariana discusses the inadequacies of Hong Kong’s anti-trafficking laws, enforcement efforts and support for victims with Rachel Li, the Justice Centre’s research and policy officer. 

Clients Waiting At Reception. Credit: Justice Centre
Credit: Justice Centre

Ariana: Who is most vulnerable to human trafficking in Hong Kong? 

Rachel Li: So far, Hong Kong has no comprehensive studies on human trafficking. But in general, domestic workers and sex workers are particularly vulnerable. Hong Kong is a major destination for domestic workers, human trafficking relating to labour exploitation on domestic workers is rather common in Hong Kong.

We published Coming Clean, a report that studies the prevalence of forced labour and human trafficking among migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong, in 2016. The report surveyed 1,003 migrant domestic workers who mostly came from the Philippines and Indonesia and found that 66.3 per cent demonstrate strong signs of exploitation. 

This means that the agencies in their country of origin could have lured them to Hong Kong with deceptive information regarding working conditions, housing and living conditions, legal documentation, job location or employer, wages and loans.

Another 17 per cent fell under the category of forced labour, in which a person performs his or her job involuntarily and under the menace of a penalty. And among the forced labour victims, 14 per cent had experienced exploitation and abuse during recruitment and while moving to Hong Kong, including excessive recruitment debt, lack of accurate information, confinement and even sexual and physical violence. We identified this group as victims of human trafficking for the purpose of forced labour.

This means over 9,000, or roughly 2 per cent, of the city’s approximately 390,000 migrant domestic workers are potentially victims of human trafficking for the purpose of forced labour.

Ariana: Can you provide some examples from the Justice Centre, where you work with trafficking victims? 

RL: We came across a significant case during our research in 2016 involving a 26-year-old Filipino woman whom we call Mary [not her real name]. In order to pay the deposit to secure her job, she borrowed a lot of money from a broker in the Philippines, who then helped her arrange almost all the aspects of her position. 

Before Mary came to Hong Kong in 2014 to work as a domestic worker, she was confined inside a recruitment training centre in the Philippines for days, with her passport and ID document confiscated. She had experienced physical and sexual abuse in the training centre, and the staff there also threatened to harm her family if she sought help from the consulate of the Philippines or the Hong Kong authorities. 

Once she arrived in Hong Kong, Mary discovered that her working conditions fell short of what the broker and the training centre had promised. She was deprived of privacy as she has to live in a very small room with another worker. She works 14 hours a day and she can only enjoy one weekly rest day if she works before and after she takes her rest. 

Her employer also threatened to deduct her salary and cut off her access to the internet and the house phone. Although she was unhappy about her work, she could not terminate her contract because she was still in debt.

[Read more: Breaking the Chains: Malagasy trafficking victims seek refuge in Hong Kong]

Ariana: Does Hong Kong have any specific anti-trafficking laws?  

RL: Trafficking offenses fall under the Immigration Ordinance and the Crimes Ordinance. However, the Immigration Ordinance doesn’t criminalise human trafficking or protect victims. As a result, human trafficking victims who enter Hong Kong through illegal methods, such as taking speed boats, often face prosecution as illegal immigrants. 

The Crimes Ordinance also falls short when it comes to tackling human trafficking. In the entire ordinance, only section 129 is related to human trafficking and it only criminalise traffickers “who takes part in bringing another person into or out of Hong Kong for the purpose of prostitution.” Under this circumstance, victims who were trafficked for other purposes, such as forced labour, are not protected by the laws. 

And since the law only criminalises human trafficking for prostitution, recruitment agencies that have committed human trafficking for labour exploitation will face lesser charges, such as a [relatively minor] penalty for overcharging agency fees. This does not deter the traffickers at all!

Credit: Justice Centre
Credit: Justice Centre

Ariana: The Trafficking in Persons Report 2020 criticised Hong Kong for failing to adopt a trauma-informed approach for human-trafficking victims. Can you tell us more about this? 

RL: We have not referred our clients to the government’s human trafficking screening mechanism. Even if the mechanism identifies you as a victim of human trafficking, the government won’t grant you additional rights and protections, such as accommodation, social support, counselling, support for living expenses or waive visa extension fees. 

However, we’ve learned from other NGOs that their clients underwent a traumatic process during the interviews of the screening mechanism. For instance, the police often arranged male officers to interview female victims, who had experienced sexual and gender-based violence. 
They ask insensitive or victim-blaming questions such as ‘Why didn’t you leave?’Besides, the interview is very long and repetitive. The victims often have to go to the police station three to four times to talk about the experience, which can cause further trauma. This discouraging approach is a major reason why the number of victims identified by the screening mechanism is so low.

Ariana: What should the government and the law enforcement agencies do in order to reduce human trafficking and labour exploitation?

RL: We need policy reforms. First of all, the Government should adopt a comprehensive anti-trafficking legislation that criminalises all forms of trafficking in accordance with the United Nations’ Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons. Moreover, the authority should provide immunity from prosecution to human trafficking victims, so that they will not be criminalised. The victims also need more comprehensive support and accommodation.  

Spare them visa extension fees and provide them boarding houses and counselling services. Also, make it easier for the victims to testify. For instance, those who have left Hong Kong could testify through live video.  

As for domestic workers, the government should abolish the “live-in” requirement and the “two-week” rule on migrant domestic workers. The former stipulates migrant domestic workers to live with their employers, exposing them to exploitation such as long working hours, being on call and curtailing of privacy. 

The latter requires migrant domestic workers to leave Hong Kong within two weeks of their contract ending, and thus discourages them from reporting abuse for fear of losing their job and forcing them to pay more fees for each subsequent contract they secure.

Lastly, as a frontline NGO that help victims of human trafficking, we have a lot of experience and expertise that we can share with the government. We hope that the government can work closer with us and other NGOs alike and listen more to our opinions. 

[Read more: Stranded in Hong Kong: The plight of domestic workers during COVID-19 ]

Ariana: What can everyday citizens do to help victims of human trafficking in Hong Kong?

RL: Pay more attention to the domestic workers who work for your neighbours or your friends. If you notice that they need to work on Sunday, or that they seem unhappy or exhausted, show them some care and refer them to the NGOs that can provide them advice and assistance, such as HELP for Domestic Workers

Many people in Hong Kong are so used to being taken care of by domestic workers and yet they may have no awareness when it comes to protecting the rights of domestic workers. Therefore, Hongkongers need to understand that all workers deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. 

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.