The Dark Side of Hong Kong: Human Trafficking

Slavery, as we know it, has been long abolished in the West since the 19th century and it is unconscionable to think that such an inhumane practice still takes place. Considering how far our society has come in countering human rights violations, — including milestones like the proclamation of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights — it seems logical that such a crime should be far more punishable than it was back in the days. However, slavery still exists in its modern form: human trafficking, and it is more than often de-emphasized in our society. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime defines human trafficking as “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons by improper means (such as force, abduction, fraud, or coercion) for an improper purpose, including forced labor or sexual exploitation.” Other indicators of human trafficking, in general, include passport confiscation, limited freedom of movement, improper wage or an unfair employment contract. 

Hong Kong may be bustling with world-class businesses, but the trafficking of persons underlies the glam and glitter. Matthew Friedman, an international modern-slavery expert and CEO of the Mekong Club, says that of the 40 million people in bondage worldwide, a shocking number of 27,000 live in Hong Kong. About half of them identify as domestic helpers. Many of them are said to be trapped in debt bondage, which puts them in endless work routines far from any legal assistance. 

Hong Kong’s lengthy battle against human traffickers has been significantly impeded by the government’s lack of input. Part of it may be because trafficking in itself is an intricate web of people who are almost always well undercover. However, arguably the biggest liability falls on the government for failing to recognize the significant number of trafficking victims within their borders and the urgent necessity for their legal protection. The 2018 Trafficking of Persons Report ranks Hong Kong in ‘Tier 2 Watch List’ , indicating that there is still much to be achieved in terms of government-led legal efforts. The local HK government denounced the report, claiming it “contained criticisms not founded on facts and allegations not supported by evidence”. The latest report from June 2019, though, showed improvement as Hong Kong made its way to Tier 2, one rank above the Tier 2 Watchlist, but still called for the government to meet minimum standards for complete eradication of human trafficking. One of the main criticisms was that Hong Kong’s policies on immigration and crime only seemed to imply the illegality of modern slavery and failed to identify sufficient penalties for it. According to the 2019 Trafficking of Persons Report, the HK government has refrained from “convicting any labor traffickers” and “did not vigorously penalize unscrupulous employment agencies and money lenders that facilitated debt bondage,” not to mention their lack of concern on the rehabilitation of victims. 

However, Tina Chan from STOPHK (Stop Trafficking of People in HK) argues that a law targeting anti-human trafficking specifically would make a huge difference. In the current status quo, sexual exploitation and labor trafficking fall under separate offences instead of under a combined anti-human trafficking law. This not only makes the prosecution procedure unnecessarily complex and inefficient, but that also makes forced labor not a crime while making it easier for traffickers to evade detection.

As a matter of fact, human rights lawmakers Patricia Ho and Dennis Kwok took the initiative and appealed for the anticipated legislation just last year. To their dismay, the government’s response was one of indifference. The most concerning issue about the absence of an anti-human trafficking bill in Hong Kong is that without the law, human trafficking is less emphasized as a violation and the victim have little capability of calling out their traffickers for their wrongdoing. More often than not, they are reluctant to participate in the investigation of their traffickers because it is understandably challenging for them to bring up their painful history. That makes their safest course of action to find an NGO that can help with legal proceedings and hope to uncover the tracks of their traffickers. Chan referred to this as a “vicious cycle”, since, without those same traffickers behind bars, we can hardly expect any progress in eradicating this crime. In a 2018 report from the U.S. Department of State, 78 employers involved in trafficking of foreign domestic workers were arrested and 35 were convicted of illegally forcing them in non-domestic work in Hong Kong. However, the inadequacy, as well as the inefficiency of trafficking regulations by the government, punished traffickers with merely fines and jail time of up to two months.

Because this practice notably targets those in poverty, most of the victims in Hong Kong happen to be from developing countries Indonesia and Sri Lanka. In a recent interview, Friedman recalls first coming into contact with modern-day slavery as a public health officer 30 years ago when he had to doctor young girls from India. These victims of sex trafficking contracted HIV/AIDS as a life-threatening result of their exploitation. There are many reasons why a victim may be vulnerable to trafficking, but Chan emphasizes poverty as one of its greatest factors. In a majority of these cases, traffickers manage to hook victims with lies regarding a higher wage or better living conditions. Such promises would naturally compel those in a poor financial state to take the offer, only to find that they have been deceived. Some children are even sold by their relatives or neighbors seeking a temporary solution to their financial shortfalls. Another common strategy used by traffickers to secure the victims’ service is debt bondage, where victims are tricked into adequate payment, but in reality, are coerced to reimburse their debt caused by hidden obligations. Thus, the promise of money is a vital backbone of this industry. Other than financial circumstances, other traits such as disabilities, lack of education or linguistic proficiency could also affect a victim’s susceptibility. 

Gender, in particular, plays a great role as well. “A disproportionate number of people who are trafficked are women and girls, partly because of the lack of emphasis on feminism in many Asian cultures,” Friedman remarks. Indeed, women account for two-thirds of the detected victims in East Asia. Society’s negative portrayal of females in certain cultures inarguably takes its toll and raises the demand for women in sex trafficking industries. Even though the UN Office on Drugs and Crimes reports that the majority of the forced labor workforce are men, women total a higher number as a whole.

Nevertheless, it seems as though the government has exhausted all excuses to further delay the legislation. The fact that they would care enough for the well-being of low-income workers, such as the minimum wage system, yet can’t be bothered to rescue victims from an even poorer state of welfare is inexcusable. It goes without saying that these victims deserve justice just as much as the rest of the population through the government’s cooperation.Human trafficking is a worldwide epidemic that will continue to thrive in the shadows of our ignorance. Every day, 2000 victims across borders are robbed of their family, freedom, and free will. While there are many ways to put an end to trafficking such as educating employers of the issue or getting involved with organizations such as STOPHK, Chan suggests that the most crucial solution a citizen can offer is to encourage the legislature to take momentous action by spreading the word. She believes that public recognition will certainly catch the attention of the Hong Kong government and assist frontline lawyers to tackle the issue at hand. It’s time for Hong Kong to fulfill a task that’s been long overdue and seize human trafficking once and for all.