Hong Kong, a city commonly associated with finance and wealth, has one of the highest proportions of people enslaved across Asia, a new report has found.
At least 29,500 people out of a population of more than seven million are trapped in modern slavery in one of the 10 richest cities in the world based on its gross domestic product, according to the Global Slavery Index 2016, which assessed the problem in 167 countries and regions.
The sobering figures which specifically concern Hong Kong may come as a surprise, but the hard-hitting report stated that the city has become one of the worst places in Asia for its poor response to the problem, performing worse than mainland China.
The city urgently needs tougher laws and a "transparent plan of action" to combat the problem, human rights group Justice Centre Hong Kong said.
Jade Anderson, anti-human trafficking coordinator for the campaign group, said the Global Slavery Index, produced by charitable organisation Walk Free Foundation, came as a "shock" to some Hongkongers.
But her organisation's research had found there were major human rights abuses that went unpunished in the city, and the number of slaves could be much higher than researchers have estimated, she said. The Justice Centre's investigation involving 1,000 migrant domestic workers found 17 per cent were carrying out "forced labor", which she said equated to about 55,000 of the city's 320,000 helpers.
"We believe that Hong Kong needs a transparent plan of action to combat human trafficking, forced labor, or slavery-like practices, and protect victims," she said. "And ultimately there needs to be legislative reform. Hong Kong must develop more comprehensive policies and laws to protect victims."
Hong Kong's proportion of people classified as slaves (0.404 per cent) is the ninth-highest in Asia and 32nd in the world, the same rank as 19 countries including South Korea, in the slavery index. Mainland China, meanwhile, was ranked lower on its proportion of slaves, due to its much larger population, taking the 14th spot in Asia. But it was among the top five countries in the world for estimated numbers of people in modern slavery (3.39 million).
The report's authors defined slavery as "situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, abuse of power or deception, with treatment akin to a farm animal". They identified Hong Kong as one of 10 countries or regions whose governments are "taking the least action" to combat the problem.
They said the city's domestic helpers, most of whom come from the Philippines and Indonesia, were the primary group being enslaved, as they faced high agency fees, 17-hour work days as well as physical and verbal abuse.
Holly Allan, director of Helpers for Domestic Helpers, a non-profit body that offers assistance to such workers in Hong Kong, said her organisation was currently working on a campaign to change the public's perceptions of them.
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"Migrant domestic workers are generally treated as a homogeneous group defined by their job," she said. "
"They are put in a box as they are labelled, commoditized and regarded as expendable. I want to campaign to take them "out of the box" by challenging perceptions and attitudes towards them so they are recognized as individuals with equal rights and worthy of respect and dignity."
She hopes the integrated social campaign "Out of the Box" will spark conversation around these workers in a positive way.
The slavery report estimated that 45.8 million people are enslaved globally. North Korea was found to have the highest percentage of modern slaves, with more than 4.3 per cent – equating to 1.1 million people in a population of about 25 million.
Meanwhile, India had the highest number of slaves in the world at 18,354,700 people.
In Hong Kong, a law, Ordinance No 1, was enacted in 1844 to outlaw slavery, but it was subsequently voided by the British monarchy because the empire's anti-slavery laws already applied to its colonies.
Despite this, in 1921, it was estimated that half of all Chinese families in Hong Kong had a mui tsai, domestic female servants who were sold into slavery at a young age and could be freed only through marriage, according to the book Concise History of Hong Kong by John Mark Carroll.
This year, the Walk Free Foundation identified Hong Kong's slavery victims as originating from "the Philippines, Thailand, mainland China, Nepal, Colombia, Chad, Uganda and other Southeast Asian countries".
Besides domestic helpers, other groups being exploited were said to include sex trafficking victims, young people engaging in compensated dating, and Southeast Asian fishermen, who are subjected to forced labour on fishing ships bound for Fiji and other ports in the Pacific.
The Justice Centre said those working in construction, the hospitality sector, and elderly care institutions were also subjected to slavery-like conditions.
Anderson said a much greater effort was needed from the government in terms of investigation and transparency on how many slavery victims it encounters.
"At the moment, there is little information from the government about human trafficking, forced labor, or slavery-like practices in Hong Kong," she said.
"We don't know how many victims have been identified, how they were identified, or what services were offered to them. We don't know how many people were prosecuted for human trafficking in the past years or how many times the prosecution code paragraph on human exploitation cases, introduced in 2013, has been applied. Nor do we know how many frontline officers have been trained or what that training contained.
"As a first step, we would like to see a consultative and public review of the policies and laws in Hong Kong."
Meanwhile, Scott Stiles, founder of the Fair Employment Agency, a not-for-profit recruitment organisation for domestic helpers, said he thought enforcement of existing laws was more crucial than creating new ones in the fight against slavery.
He said Hong Kong was still better than many Asian countries in its legal protection for domestic helpers. "I think there is room for improvement but it is more of an enforcement issue," he said. "If people are scared of the repercussions if they quit their job, and feel like they can't, then that is a bad situation."
The Hong Kong government has dismissed the Global Slavery Index's findings, saying it paints an incomplete picture as it relies on information supplied by partnering NGOs, and lacks verification from the government.
Speaking to the Post this week on affording protection to foreign domestic helpers, a government spokesman said the Labour Department will continue to promote awareness on their rights and channels on which to seek redress.
He also stated that current "legislation already provides a solid and proven framework" to combat human trafficking.
Major culprits behind slavery in Hong Kong
Employers – The Fair Employment Agency, a not-for-profit domestic helpers recruitment agency, says most Hong Kong employers are good to their helpers. But some may force them to work extremely long hours for no extra pay, or fail to ensure good living conditions for them, such as giving them a private room. More extreme cases have seen employers verbally or even physically abusing their helpers, sometimes resulting in court action.
Extended families – Sometimes, employers will make their helpers carry out extra tasks for family members who do not live in the same home. This is prohibited in the helper's contract, and subsequently constitutes exploitation.
Employment agencies – Some of Hong Kong's 1,300 domestic helper employment agencies will often illegally charge workers anything from HK$5,000 to $21,000 to sign up, compared with the standard rate of 10 per cent of their first salary, or about HK$431, according to campaign group Helpers for Domestic Helpers. The helpers are thus usually in debt even before their arrival.
Finance companies and loan sharks – Domestic helpers who end up in debt will sometimes take out loans from suspect individuals and companies. The credit agencies collude with many local employment agencies to offer loan schemes with interest rates of up to 60 per cent. Domestic helpers report being threatened with violence, even rape, if they do not pay back. About 90 per cent of domestic helpers struggle with debt, according to a survey conducted by NGO Enrich.
Friends – Some domestic helpers, who offer to be guarantors for their friends, land in the loan trap when these friends disappear.