Stop turning a blind eye to exploitation in sex trade

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 March, 2006, 12:00am

One young woman's story in today's paper shows how a vulnerable foreign visitor can be made to appear a willing player in Hong Kong's sex industry. It poses the question whether she is an example of trafficking in humans for sexual exploitation, and whether the government should be more willing to recognise the problem and face up to the social and public health issues it raises.

To the government, however, there is no question to answer. This is despite the fact that, for the sixth consecutive year, the annual human rights report by the US State Department singles out Hong Kong as a transit and destination point for 'persons trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation'. Once again the government has dismissed the claim.

The story of Raquel puts the issue in perspective. Prostitution is legal in Hong Kong but only for residents over 18 working out of one-person brothels. Raquel works in discos. There is no question her activities are illegal.

Hong Kong is committed to act against trafficking under an international convention. But the pact fails to clearly define what trafficking is. A newer pact tackling that problem has not been signed by China and Hong Kong is therefore not a party.

Raquel, 25, arrived from the Philippines, as do many women from the mainland and other parts of Asia, with a short-term visa, a bed in a crowded room, a debt to her 'manager', and the promise of a legitimate job in the hospitality industry. This would enable her to repay the debt and, hopefully, have enough left over to provide some relief from grinding poverty for her family at home. She found herself in a basement disco, able to earn money only by persuading men to buy her drinks or to pay her for sex.

Raquel may be guilty of naivety. But that is not a crime in Hong Kong. Her story would satisfy most reasonable people's definition of an exploitative human sex trade. It is not an unusual example. Those involved in outreach work and research believe there are more than 200,000 women in the 'underground' sex industry.

The authorities throw a lot of resources into catching and deporting them but are only scratching the surface. It is a profitable business that attracts organised crime and breeds corruption. Unregulated sex workers, without access to health and counselling services, are exposed to abuse, health risks and drug use.

The government's position on prostitution and trafficking does nothing to address the problem. Outreach groups working with prostitutes say the government neither funds them nor provides services to sex workers. More support for these groups to provide services would be a good start.

If Raquel is naive, she is no more so in these modern times than a government in denial of the mobility of the world's oldest profession and the dangers that can pose to health and public morality.