Hong Kong is on the Tier 2 Watch List of the United States Trafficking in Persons Report 2022 that was released earlier this month. According to the report, the city is on this list as the government does not fully meet the minimum standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) to eliminate this form of trafficking, but is making “significant efforts” to comply with them. The report was released ahead of World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, which is observed every year on July 30.
What is the situation in Hong Kong?
Human trafficking is the practice of recruiting, transporting, transferring, harbouring or receiving of people using force, fraud or deception, with the objective of exploiting them for profit. The Trafficking in Persons Report categorises countries into the following tiers, based on how well they meet the TVPA criteria to eliminate trafficking:
- Tier 1: Countries that fully meet the TVPA’s minimum standards to eliminate trafficking.
- Tier 2: Countries that do not fully meet the TVPA’s minimum standards, but that are making great strides towards complying with them.
- Tier 2 Watch List: Countries that do not fully meet the TVPA’s minimum standards, are making significant efforts to do so, but have room for improvement. Hong Kong is in this category because the report found that the government failed to prosecute or convict labour traffickers, prevent authorities from penalising victims for unlawful acts they were forced to commit by traffickers, and enact legislation to fully criminalise all forms of trafficking.
- Tier 3: Countries that do not fully meet the TVPA’s minimum standards and are not making substantial efforts to do so.
When it comes to Hong Kong, the report acknowledges that the government more than doubled the number of officials who received trafficking-related training between 2020 and 2021. However, authorities did not identify any trafficking victims when they conducted law enforcement actions against illegal brothels and suspected child traffickers. Similarly, while officials used a two-tiered identification mechanism to screen vulnerable populations for indicators of trafficking, they only identified one victim in 2021.
Throughout the report, foreign domestic workers are described as one of the most vulnerable groups as they are often isolated in homes, and their employers control their access to food and transportation, as well as their identity documents. Hong Kong is of nearly 340,000 foreign domestic helpers, and the report underlines that the government prosecuted an increased number of employers of foreign domestic workers for crimes, including assault and causing bodily harm.
The Tier 2 Watch List includes Kuwait, a country that also has a large population of foreign domestic helpers who could fall prey to human trafficking. Singapore is in Tier 1, with around 247,400 domestic workers in 2020 (Source: Statista).
How are Foreign Domestic Helpers in Hong Kong vulnerable?
According to the report, three Hong Kong policies regarding foreign domestic helpers make them vulnerable to trafficking: the live-in requirement, the “two-week rule” that applies to foreign domestic helpers with terminated contracts, and the absence of maximum working hours. Other ways in which they can be victims of this crime are through debt bondage, and being brought to Hong Kong under false pretenses by being lured into working in another country after they arrive in the city, or being forced into commercial sex.
Hong Kong-based HELP for Domestic Workers breaks the practice of human trafficking into three elements to provide a better understanding of how foreign domestic helpers can be victims of this crime:
This includes recruitment, which can be in-person or online, transporting, transferring, harbouring and delivering a victim to a third party.
Example: Someone who has been transported from their home country to Hong Kong and is received by another party who takes them to a place where they will be exploited.
Threatening or using force against a person, coercing or abducting them, deceiving them in some way, abusing vulnerable people or giving payments or benefits to a person and expecting a return all constitute the means of human trafficking
Example: Being approached by someone in your home country who finds you a job as a foreign domestic helper in Hong Kong. However, on arrival, you are told you must work at your employer’s shop as a salesperson.
This covers financial, personal or corporate gain through exploitation, such as prostitution of others, sexual exploitation, forced labour, slavery or bonded labour, removal of organs, and forced marriage.
Example: Being persuaded to go to Hong Kong on the pretext of working as a foreign domestic helper, but on arrival, being told that you will work on a construction site and paid a foreign domestic helper’s wage, but given no extra pay for the additional work you do.
There are specific recommendations to protect the city’s foreign domestic helpers against this crime. They include prohibiting worker-charged recruitment fees, eliminating the two-week rule, giving foreign domestic helpers the option of living outside their place of employment, and creating legal maximum working hours for this category of employee.
The HKSAR government has objected to the report, claiming that the rating is “unfair and not substantiated by facts”, and added that, “Exploitation of Foreign Domestic Helpers (FDHs) is never tolerated in Hong Kong. FDHs abused or exploited should not feel inhibited from lodging complaints against their employers.” Authorities also cited various regulations that aim to prevent trafficking in human persons, such as the Crimes Ordinance (Cap. 200), the Employment Ordinance (Cap. 57), and the Employment Agency Regulations (Cap. 57A).
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