Hong Kong's 'ludicrous' and 'inept' human-trafficking laws are punishing victims of the crime rather than those who bring them to the city, a leading human rights solicitor says.
Mike Vidler, managing proprietor of Vidler & Co Solicitors, pointed to the recent case of one of his clients, a Filipino woman who was jailed for four and a half months for immigration offences while the people who brought her to the city went unpunished.
Vidler's comments echo concerns raised last month in a report by the United States Department of State, which said Hong Kong 'does not fully comply with minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking' and 'authorities have made no discernible progress in law enforcement efforts against sex trafficking or forced labour [labour trafficking]'.
In the case Vidler cited, the woman, who had received no education and had never left her homeland before, thought she was coming to Hong Kong for a week, but spent 18 months working and living at her employer's home.
She only went to the Philippine consulate to seek help when her boss stopped paying her.
'Despite the fact this woman co-operated with authorities and gave evidence against her employers for human-trafficking offences, her employers were not prosecuted, but she was, for immigration offences,' Vidler said. 'It was a ludicrous decision. It boiled down to the magistrate not believing her story. It was inept. Here we focus on prostitution and not labour issues. Nothing in our legislation protects labour issues at all.'
Vidler argues that Hong Kong's laws have no provisions for protecting the victims of trafficking. The city is not a signatory to the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. It does not have specific anti-trafficking laws, but instead brings cases under the Immigration Ordinance, Crimes Ordinance, and other relevant laws which prohibit some trafficking-related offences.
Because of this, Vidler argues, the city's authorities focus their attention on a narrow interpretation of trafficking - the movement of women across international borders for the purposes of prostitution.
The Victim of Crimes Charter does offer some protection for crime victims, but Vidler says the charter is too general to be applied in trafficking cases, and the policy guidelines for prosecutors, legal practitioners and law enforcement agencies are too general when it comes to trafficking cases.
'It [the charter] is not specific to victims of trafficking, and does not address persons accused of criminal offences,' he said. 'It does not highlight procedure to identify potential victims of trafficking and doesn't separate those who have been subjected to sexual exploitation nor address that they are eligible for special care. It also does not provide any defences for criminal offences that victims of trafficking may be convicted of.'
A Security Bureau spokesman defended the city's record on human trafficking and said there was already a solid framework in place for the law enforcement agencies to prevent and combat human-trafficking activities in the city.