The man who spearheads the United States' efforts to tackle human trafficking says Hong Kong has reached a major turning point in how it deals with the victims and international criminal networks behind modern-day slavery.
Luis CdeBaca, director of the US State Department's office which combats human trafficking, made the observations after a two-day trip to the city last month, his third visit to Hong Kong since taking up the post in 2009.
"We are at a crossroads and in my most optimistic moments you could say a ladder or a launch pad, but in my pessimistic moments, crossroads can go in multiple directions," he told the Sunday Morning Post.
"The folks at Legco, government and civil society are grappling the issue in a way not like in the past. And which direction Hong Kong takes, we stand ready to go, but this does need to be a Hong Kong solution to a Hong Kong issue."
CdeBaca said the recent court case of Indonesian maid Kartika Puspitasari, who was abused by her employers over two years, had helped raise awareness of the issue of human trafficking beyond the realm of prostitution to include enforced labour.
"That case helped focus people's attention," CdeBaca said.
If any maid is beaten and has her passport taken, it becomes an assault case, he said, but it may not become a human trafficking case, he said.
Last September, a judge found that Kartika's employers, a couple in Tai Po, had physically abused her and handed down jail sentences of between three years and three months, and of five and a half years.
During his visit, CdeBaca met officials from the Department of Justice, including the new director of public prosecutions, Keith Yeung Kar-hung, as well as government bureaux to talk about Hong Kong's commitment to fighting human trafficking.
They briefed him on recent efforts such as the incorporation in September of a new section in the city's prosecution code that covers human exploitation cases, as well as the appointment of a co-ordinator of human exploitation cases early last year.
"The security folks are very aware of the issue and the conversation has differed from previous visits," he said, referring to a chat with the Secretary for Security Lai Tung-kwok.
CdeBaca also welcomed a new initiative by the Justice Department to create a database that records and maps cases of sex trafficking, enforced labour and abuse of domestic helpers.
However, a spokesman for the Department of Justice said the administration expressed its disappointment at Hong Kong's tier two ranking - it dropped from tier one in 2009 - in the 2013 Trafficking in Persons report that was released by CdeBaca's office last June.
The report identified Hong Kong as a destination and transit point for men, women and children from the region for sex trafficking and forced labour and called for the city to enact a comprehensive anti- trafficking law.
The government criticised the ranking and said it was "based more on the extent of government action to combat trafficking than on the size of the problem".