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Foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong

Let domestic helpers work while fighting labour abuse cases, US diplomat urges Hong Kong government

Susan Coppedge says city’s worst trafficking problems related to domestic helpers

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 December, 2016, 8:16pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 December, 2016, 4:38pm

A top American anti-human-trafficking official has called on the Hong Kong government to allow domestic workers who fall victim to labour abuse, or have criminal or civil cases pending, to work.

Not allowing it means many workers in those positions do not come forward, drop their claims or settle out of court, said Susan Coppedge, ambassador-at-large for trafficking and a senior adviser to the US secretary of state.

“To have successful cases, you have to find the victims, and once you find them, you have to give them the ability to cooperate with law enforcement officials,” Coppedge said.

“If they are not allowed to work, you are penalising them for bringing forth the crime they are reporting”.

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That was one of the recommendations Coppedge gave top city officials during a visit last week. She was in Hong Kong researching the next Trafficking in Persons report, to be released in June 2017.

In the last edition, Hong Kong was on the report’s Tier 2 watch list – one rank above the worst offenders – for failing to improve its ability to combat human-trafficking.

Coppedge said the city’s worst trafficking problems are probably related to domestic helpers. She said: “It does not mean that employers are trying to be exploitative. They may not understand the situation from which they are getting their domestic workers.”

Reports have shown that domestic helpers working in the city, who often have to pay illegal fees to employment agencies, are particularly vulnerable to abuse.

Despite the flaws in combating trafficking in the city – namely a lack of a law criminalising forced labour – Coppedge said she was encouraged to hear police and immigration workers had started a pilot identification programme for victims of trafficking.

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“They informed us that in January they will be able to evaluate that programme and roll out the successful portions of it to other agencies, such as customs and labour,” she said.

“That’s encouraging because we all know it’s a hidden crime so we need to have victim identification protocols on the books... to identify victims, hopefully provide them the services they need and bring increased successful prosecutions.”

According to the Security Bureau, from April 2015 to February 2016 16 victims were identified and eight syndicate members convicted, with sentences ranging from four to 30 months.

Commenting on the alleged “bogus asylum seekers” in Hong Kong, Coppedge said it is important “to have an appropriate asylum-seeking system set up, so the right questions can be asked.”

She said a bad system can leave people vulnerable to trafficking.

Last week, the Legislative Council voted down a motion calling for new measures to combat “bogus refugees.”