19 September 2019
Domestic worker groups call for an end to "modern-day slavery" in Hong Kong. Photo:
Domestic worker groups call for an end to "modern-day slavery" in Hong Kong. Photo:

Modern slavery: Hong Kong is not immune

Hong Kong suffers, unavoidably, from a problem that afflicts all societies around the world – people forced to work without compensation, little or no freedom, and often in abusive circumstances.

Indeed, criminals are increasingly taking advantage of our globalized economy — and migrant workers in particular — to use force, fraud and coercion to force others to work in exploitative conditions.

People tend not to call the problem what it is – modern-day slavery.

Many of us think slavery is an artifact of another era. Unfortunately, it’s all too real a problem in today’s world.

If we are honest with ourselves, we know that no place on earth can be immune, not my own country and not Hong Kong.

But there are steps we all can and should take.

Governments long gave the crime the obscure label “trafficking in persons”.

This confused many people, because it suggested that the most important issue was the violation of immigration laws.

The international community today has broken with that definition and instead focuses on exploitation of the victim, regardless of whether a border is crossed.

The United Nations embraced these standards in its 2000 Palermo Protocol.

The United States and China have adopted this landmark protocol, as have governments around the world.

Hong Kong is behind the curve.

It lacks both an anti-slavery law and a comprehensive government action plan to combat modern-day slavery, the most basic elements of an effective response.

Macau, on the other hand, has passed a law that conforms to UN standards.

I find this gap surprising.

Hong Kong, “Asia’s World City”, is a deeply sophisticated place that I deeply admire.

It boasts an advanced economy with strong rule of law and respected, world-class law enforcement agencies.

I have met Hong Kong people from many walks of life, and all are compassionate people who reject any notion of exploitation.

I’m therefore not surprised when I encounter disbelief that slavery could exist in the city.

Is there really such a problem here, my friends ask?

My response is, regrettably, “Yes.”

Like a host of other crimes, slavery remains a universal evil around world.

It would be astonishing if it didn’t exist here.

Is it so hard to believe that some limited number of people would be tempted to enrich or convenience themselves by exploiting others?

The United States has a sizable problem, and I am glad that the federal and state governments are facing up to it and working hard to aid the victims and thwart the criminals who exploit them.

In Hong Kong, the problem is certainly not as obvious as in other countries, but it has many faces.

In some cases, people are transshipped through the city on their way to other destinations, where they face exploitation.

More complicated are the sex industry and foreign domestic workers.

Most foreigners in the sex industry appear to come here on a voluntary basis. 

Criminals, however, coerce some portion.

There is evidence, for instance, that criminals trick poor mainland women into traveling to Hong Kong with promises of legitimate work and, once they are here, confiscate their passports and coerce the women into working in degrading conditions every day.

The much bigger problem, however, is among foreign domestic workers.

Thousands of us depend on these nearly 350,000 women to clean our houses, prepare our food and care for our children.

The vast majority of these workers are well treated, appreciate the employment opportunities, are glad to be here and are welcome as members of our households.

Their income often serves to support families and communities back in their home countries.

But not all stories are that happy.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have worrisome stories to tell, and we need to listen.

Employment agencies – including many based in Hong Kong – sometimes demand most or even all of the workers’ pay through illegal “placement fees” that vastly exceed the legal limits.

Some women are not granted rest days, and there are reports that some are not permitted even to leave their apartment for months.

What does that add up to?

No freedom of movement, inability to leave one’s flat, working for extended months without compensation?

Doesn’t this begin to sound a lot like what any of us might call slavery?

All of us agree that torture and physical abuse of a domestic worker are wrong.

But what if the coercion is more subtle?

Is it acceptable for a vulnerable foreign worker to be denied full wages for work completed, to be denied personal freedom of movement outside work hours, or to lack access to the labor protections that other Hong Kong workers enjoy?

If only 1 percent of Hong Kong’s domestic workers are subject to this sort of abuse, that’s 3,500 victims.

How serious does the problem have to be to demand our attention?

Correction of these problems merely requires Hong Kong to take its rightful place in the global community.

The average Hongkonger or foreign resident will be perfectly happy to know his or her domestic worker is happy and well protected.

I require all diplomats at the US Consulate General to take training to ensure they understand the rights of their employees, and our domestic workers are also apprised directly of their rights.

Without any doubt, Hong Kong certainly wants to be sure that the huge number of foreign workers who seek employment as helpers here are guaranteed basic fairness and respect.

The vast majority do enjoy that respect and the opportunity to work and receive a fair wage; yet we must ensure that no one suffers in the shadows owing to an unfortunate gap in legal protection.

I am raising this uncomfortable topic because the US government has joined the United Nations and the international community in seeking to stamp out slavery wherever and however it appears.

It’s time Hong Kong caught up with the rest of the world and implemented the basics: an anti-slavery law in keeping with UN norms, a government-wide action plan, government-NGO cooperation, effective governance of employment agencies and prosecution of offenders.

The city will have all of these someday.

For the sake of the values Hong Kong people share, I hope the day will come sooner rather than later.

[Chinese version中文版]

US report urges Hong Kong to enhance protection of foreign maids (July 28, 2015)

HK woman who abused Indonesian maid jailed for six years (Feb. 27, 2015)

Group says Hong Kong should acknowledge human trafficking exists (July 3, 2015)

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U.S. Consul General to Hong Kong & Macau