Hong Kong must be vigilant on human trafficking

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 June, 2014, 3:03am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 June, 2014, 11:55am

Trafficking of people for the sex trade or forced labour is a serious violation of human rights that attracts heavy penalties under Hong Kong's laws covering crime, immigration and offences against the person. No government likes being accused of being soft on it. Hence the terse exchanges from time to time between the Hong Kong government and the US State Department, whose annual report on human trafficking has again criticised the city.

The latest report identifies Hong Kong as a source territory as well as destination and transit point for trafficking and says it is not doing enough about it. As a result Hong Kong remains ranked in tier two, which means it does not fully comply with US trafficking laws. However, it fared better than Malaysia and Thailand, which were demoted to tier three.

These things tend to follow a pattern, with Washington taking the high moral ground and targeted governments claiming criticism is not entirely fair. This year Hong Kong said the report did not reflect its unfailing commitment, and disagreed that it had become a trafficking hub.

That said, slavery does have a 21st century context and Hong Kong does have issues. They include exploitation of impoverished, vulnerable foreign domestic helpers by a minority of bad employers and by agents who gouge fees that leave them in debt bondage. And it is difficult to dismiss suspicions that some unsavoury people profit from organised sex tourism to Hong Kong and from sexual exploitation of heavily indebted helpers.

Human rights advocates say existing laws tend to focus on prostitution rather than forced labour. The fact that most employers behave decently is no excuse to give a free pass to the exceptions. Critics argue that the government should legislate separately to target forced labour, domestic servitude and debt bondage. Meanwhile, it is good to hear the government recognises the need to maintain vigilance against trafficking.