An estimated 10,000 people were living in modern slavery in Hong Kong last year and the government’s response was limited, non-profit group Global Slavery Index says. Last Sunday, Chief Secretary Mr Cheung Kin-chung vowed to put human trafficking to an end with new funding, but stressed it is not a prevalent issue in the city.
Modern slavery refers to forced labour, forced marriage and forced sexual exploitation. In Hong Kong, victims include women forced into prostitution and domestic helpers stripped of their rights.
Commitment means money
In his new blog post last Sunday, Mr Cheung said $62 million of recurrent funding has been allocated this year to create 98 posts to implement the Action Plan to Tackle Trafficking in Persons and to Enhance Protection of Foreign Domestic Helpers.
The funding will go to the Police Force, Immigration Department, Customs and Excise Department, Labour Department and Department of Justice.
Mr Cheung said the Labour Department will put in place an initial victim screening mechanism in its ten local offices throughout the city, in an effort to identify foreign domestic helpers who are exploited or abused as early as possible.
“The Labour Department will step up publicity and promotional activities to raise the awareness of foreign domestic helpers and employers of their employment rights and obligations, and step up enforcement and prosecution against unscrupulous employment agencies,” a representative from the Labour Department tells Harbour Times.
“The Department plans to implement the initial victim screening mechanism in the second half of 2019,” he adds.
On the other hand, the Immigration Department will also set up a team responsible for preliminary checking on the foreign domestic helpers’ visa applications. The move aims to spot potential human trafficking or exploitation indicators.
It is not immediately known when and how these measures will be implemented as it is a preliminary plan, a government representative tells Harbour Times.
‘Proactive and intense’
Nevertheless, Mr Cheung argued that screening efforts by the authorities have been proactive and intense in recent years.
Last year, the government conducted initial screenings of over 7,500 vulnerable persons, such as illegal immigrants, sex workers and foreign domestic workers, which tripled the number of 2,500 in 2016.
Since 2015, the human trafficking victim screening mechanism has been carried out by the police, immigration officers and customs and excise officials.
“The percentage of victims identified has remained at a low level of less than 0.3 percent, with only 18 victims identified in 2018,” Mr Cheung says. “[It reinforces] our observation all along that trafficking in persons is not prevalent in Hong Kong.”
But Global Slavery Index gives Hong Kong authorities a negative rating in identifying victims precisely because of the extremely low number.
Mr Cheung also reiterated that breakthroughs have been made, such as a joint investigation protocol.
“Potential victims will be jointly interviewed by relevant departments where needed, so as to spare them the agonies and traumatic experience of going through separate interviews and repeating the same story to different departments,” he explains.
Other measures include a six-fold increase in penalties against employment agencies for malpractice, a 24-hour hotline supporting seven languages for foreign workers and training for the authorities.
No single law draws opprobrium
While measures have been introduced under the Action Plan, critics argue that there is no specific law against human trafficking in Hong Kong to begin with.
Last year, the U.S. State Department placed Hong Kong on the Tier 2 Watch List in its Trafficking in Persons report for the third consecutive year, just one rank from the worst offenders of human trafficking. Sanctions could come if the city is downgraded to Tier 3.
The report by the U.S. said: “Hong Kong law did not criminalize all forms of human trafficking and the government relied on various provisions of laws relating to prostitution, immigration, employment, and physical abuse to prosecute trafficking crimes.”
“The current laws may be applicable to certain acts, but they cannot reflect the severity of human trafficking as they usually entail lenient punishment,” says Ms Claudia Yip, a representative of legislator Mr Dennis Kwok.
In his latest response, Mr Cheung again defends the government’s efforts in the face of criticism from the U.S.
“We have a host of effective and comprehensive legislation to combat trafficking in persons crimes and protect foreign domestic helpers… It is unfair and groundless for some critics to accuse the [government] of lacking the determination in tackling trafficking in persons simply because there is no composite trafficking in persons law,” he says.