Foreign domestic workers are among the most vulnerable members of our community in Hong Kong. They arrive as strangers, lacking money and friends and must live with their employers. The domestic helpers, mostly women, are at great risk of exploitation and abuse. This vulnerability makes them prime targets for human trafficking and forced labour. Hong Kong has long been identified as a hub for these heinous crimes and criticised for failing to do enough to prevent them. The weakness of the system and need for reform was highlighted by a judge in an important court ruling in late April. Mr Justice Russell Coleman required the police to revive an investigation into allegations of trafficking and forced labour made by a domestic helper from the Philippines who had been sexually abused by her employer. Significantly, he declared that failures in the investigation were caused by the city’s lack of specific legislation criminalising forced labour. The government had breached its legal duty to provide effective protection for victims, the judge said. The facts of the case are disturbing. The domestic worker was 40 years old when, in 2018, she took a job with an expat doctor who was then almost 80. She was soon being sexually abused. ‘Treat us as human beings’, say Hong Kong domestic workers who caught Covid First, she was indecently assaulted during a “health check” by her employer. Further abuse took place during massage sessions during which she was required to perform sex acts. She escaped in 2019 when her employer went on holiday. The case was especially serious because the helper alleged her employer had sexually abused at least three other women in similar circumstances. She had video and photographic evidence. The police initially classified her as a victim of trafficking. But a more senior officer reversed that decision believing there to be insufficient evidence to support the broader allegations. As a result, the investigation was limited to the sexual abuse of the worker who made the complaint. The doctor was jailed for 30 months for indecently assaulting her. But the victim was not satisfied, arguing her claims of trafficking and forced labour should be further investigated. She succeeded with a legal challenge at the High Court. Mr Justice Coleman found the evidence clearly pointed to a “credible suspicion” the worker had been recruited for sexual exploitation. The police had failed to take relevant facts into account and gave insufficient weight to the video and photographic evidence. There had been little or no investigation of the helper’s allegations that other women had also been abused. Hong Kong’s treatment of foreign domestic workers is unjustifiable The failures in the investigation by relatively senior officers pointed to a systemic problem, said the judge. The fundamental flaw was the absence of any specific law making forced labour an offence. Instead, it is dealt with through a “patchwork” of other crimes. The same position applies to human trafficking. The judge said the case illustrated the “current divorce” between forced labour and the criminal justice system. Law enforcement agencies naturally focus their investigations on offences that exist, rather than those that do not, he added. This is not the first time a judge has called for a law dedicated to forced labour or trafficking. Mr Justice Kevin Zervos raised the same concerns in 2016 in a case involving a worker from Pakistan. In that case, the Court of Final Appeal ultimately held there was no requirement that a bespoke law be passed. But the top court “left the door ajar”. It said a future case might arise in which a breach of the government’s duty to protect victims resulted directly from the lack of such a law. That case has now arisen, as Mr Justice Coleman found. The government must take his judgment seriously. Rather than seeking to overturn it on appeal, it should accept that this is a long-standing problem that needs to be tackled. Legislation on human trafficking and forced labour is urgently needed. The absence of a specific law is damaging Hong Kong’s reputation and exposing the most vulnerable in our society to abuse.