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HK businesses join fight vs trafficking

14 May 2016

ConGen Bernie Catalla (fourth from left) is one of the special guests for the ceremonial ribbon-cutting.
By Vir B. Lumicao

Somewhere among Hong Kong’s 2.48 million households there are domestic helpers who are virtual human slaves because of their long working hours and the huge debts they had to incur to secure their jobs.
Because they work between 17-18 hours a day and are in debt bondage, they are deemed to be in slave-like conditions, which is the main reason why the U. S. State Department has given Hong Kong a Tier 2 rating in its annual human trafficking report since 2009 .
The Tier 2 ranking means Hong Kong lags in complying with minimum international standards for the elimination of human trafficking and slavery. It is a charge the government rejects because the TIP report allegedly fails to reflect the authorities’ “unfailing and continuous efforts” in fighting the scourge.
Amidst this scenario, a private organization called The Mekong Club is enlisting Corporate Hong Kong in the fight against human trafficking, and the effort is led by an expert in the global campaign to stamp out the menace.
Matthew Friedman, chief executive of The Mekong Club, says he has been working to eliminate human trafficking for the past 26 years -- as regional project manager of the UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking based in Bangkok from 2006 to 2012, and as deputy director of the USAID Office of Public Health at the Regional Development Mission-Asia Region from 1991 to 2006.
Those jobs saw him living in Nepal, Bangladesh and Thailand for several years and in Hong Kong for the past two years as he helps reduce the estimated 36 million slaves around the world, 66% or 23.4 million of whom are in Asia, according to the 2015 Global Slavery Index.
“I work for an organization called The Mekong Club. I work with banks, I work with corporations,” Friedman said in an interview with The SUN on the sidelines of the “1 People 1 City” multi-cultural Festival at Southorn Playground on May 8.
“We train them on what they need to know in order to protect their business because the profit generated from slavery is US$1.1 trillion annually, (and) the banks fear that if that money goes into the banks, it’s money laundering,” he said.
Friedman said manufacturers are concerned about the possibility that slavery is involved in their supply chain. “So we work to get corporations to train in this so they could look into their business and ensure there could be no problem with them,” he said.
The two-day festival on May 7-8, hosted by the International Christian Assembly, aimed to raise over $1 million to help The Mekong Club set up support programs including raising businesses and NGOs’ awareness of modern-day slavery.
The people of Hong Kong are very receptive to the campaign against human trafficking, Friedman said. But he admits there are documented cases of human slavery here. “You see it in people in forced prostitution, you see it among domestic helpers,” he said.
“We would like to put a more positive spin on the fact that corporations are stepping up, they are becoming interested, they want to take on a leadership role, they understand that they live as part of this world,” Friedman said.
“The banks are beginning to proactively address this, manufacturers are doing that, and a lot of people look at the corporate sector here, saying that ‘they don’t care, they use profits from slavery, that’s the case’. I have very good relationships with the corporates, they are very interested in this idea” of the private sector leading the fight
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