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Migrant workers' plight cited for HK’s downgrade in US human trafficking report

01 July 2020

By The SUN

The TPR urges more protection for HK's migrant workers to prevent them falling prey to exploitation 

Hong Kong has been downgraded to Tier 2 Watch List status in the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report for 2020, for its perceived failure to “fully meet the minimum standards” for eliminating the menace.

Despite attempts to show an effort to crack down on human trafficking, the Hong Kong government was not seen as having done any improvement compared to last year, when it was at Tier 2 status.

“Authorities did not investigate, prosecute or convict any cases of labor trafficking and investigated significantly fewer cases related to sex trafficking compared to the previous year,” said the TPR.

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Among those that continue to be considered as trafficking victims in Hong Kong are some of its 400,000 foreign domestic workers who, the reports said,” become victims of debt bondage in the private homes in which they are employed.”

From 2016 to 2019 Hong Kong was at Tier 2 level, and before this, was ranked Tier 1, the highest in the three-tier ranking.
The downgrade prompted an angry reaction from the Hong Kong government, which slammed the report as containing allegations based on hearsay.
“The findings are groundless, and the rating of Hong Kong at Tier-2 Watch List is obviously seriously biased and not substantiated by facts,” a government spokesman said.

He scored the report’s “sloppy and prejudiced basis”, and said that the HKSAR government has always attached great importance to combating human trafficking.

This was bolstered by the small number and percentage of victims identified in the report, he said.

“There has never been any sign that Hong Kong is being actively used by syndicates as a destination or transit point for TIP…To attack Hong Kong for lagging behind in our anti-TIP efforts despite such positive outcome is grossly unfair and illogical,” he said.

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The TPR’s 20th edition acknowledged Hong Kong “is making significant efforts” to combat trafficking, including hiring and training 98 new employees within the Immigration, Customs, Labor and Justice departments who focus on the issue.

The report also noted that Hong Kong screened more than 7,000 vulnerable individuals, the labour department introduced a victim identification mechanism to its division offices, and various officials have been given anti-trafficking training.

But the government did not demonstrate overall increasing efforts compared with the previous reporting period, the report said. Only three victims were identified in 2019, down from 18 in 2018, and they were not given government-funded services.

Observers also reportedly noted that the “ineffective implementation of the screening mechanism and a lack of understanding of psychological trauma associated with trafficking continued to result in few victims identified.”

“As in previous years, the government continued to penalize victims for unlawful acts traffickers compelled them to commit. The government did not enact legislation to fully criminalize all forms of trafficking. Therefore, Hong Kong was downgraded to Tier 2 Watch List,” the report said.

For the SAR to improve its TIP rating, the report urged the government to, among other measures, increase protection for foreign helpers to reduce their vulnerability to trafficking.

These include removing recruitment fees, eliminating the “two-week rule,” allowing workers to live outside their employers’ homes, and creating legal maximum working hours.

The report called on the government to proactively investigate unscrupulous employment agencies and money lenders for their complicity in labor trafficking and sufficiently penalize convicted agency operators.

Human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims in Hong Kong, and traffickers exploit victims from Hong Kong abroad. The report said victims include citizens from China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Uganda, Kenya, Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries, as well as countries in South Asia, Africa, and South America.

The report said some of the 400,000 foreign maids, primarily from Indonesia and the Philippines, work in Hong Kong. It said some foreign domestic workers become victims of debt bondage in the private homes in which they are employed.

Some employers, money lenders, and employment agencies illegally withhold passports, work contracts, or other possessions until the debt is paid, the report said.

The report also noted that some workers are required to work up to 17 hours per day; experience verbal, sexual, or physical abuse in the home; live in inadequate conditions; and/or are not granted a legally required weekly day off.

Ho has extended help to some Filipino migrant workers in distress
Meanwhile, Hong Kong human rights lawyer Patricia Ho, who has extended help to some abused and/or disadvantaged Filipino domestic workers, has been named as a "TIP Report Hero", one of 10 so honored this year from different countries.

Ho was cited for her "dynamic leadership in defending human trafficking victims and marginalized groups by challenging government policies and law, and her relentless work to promote the better treatment of victims through the elevation of survivors' voices and trauma-informed approach."

The TIP Report Hero award is bestowed  each year on "outstanding" individuals who fight to end human trafficking.

In 2018, The SUN's team of editors and writers were among those nominated for the prestigious award.

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