Lawyer takes on Hong Kong government's failure to stop forced labour and human trafficking: 'What the government is doing in this case is alarming'
Government using 'all its might' to resist judicial review, says lawyer of human trafficking victim
Leading human rights lawyer Patricia Ho, who is challenging the government over its failure to pass laws protecting victims of forced labour and human trafficking, says authorities are sending a wrong message to society.
In a week that marked Human Rights Day and ahead of a landmark judicial review, set to begin on January 12, she called for support systems for victims in Hong Kong, where human trafficking is "serious and rampant".
The judicial review is focused on a Pakistani man who was brought to the city on a domestic-worker visa, but was forced to work in an office for almost four years without pay. During that time, he allegedly suffered psychological and physical abuse.
Ho said the government has sent a negative message through the whole process.
"When we filed this case, we offered to stay the proceedings if they could simply promise to provide a system to protect victims. They refused," she recalled. Now the government has applied to be represented in court by David Pannick QC, a leading London silk.
"They are using all their might to resist this application, which at the end of the day - if we win - simply asks the government to improve their current system, which is not good enough to protect victims," said Ho.
She believes this is not an isolated case, adding: "I am afraid, through my experience in this case and now in many other cases, the government is well aware of dozens of situations where domestic helpers or even asylum seekers are exploited in Hong Kong but they don't do anything to protect them."
Ho, 32, born and raised in Hong Kong, got involved in the case when the man from Pakistan - whose name cannot be revealed for legal reasons - approached her after seeing his torture claim rejected.
"When I looked at the documents, I was immediately aware he was a victim of human trafficking. I was shocked that he had gone this far without being identified and protected by the government," she said.
"It's the classic story that forms all the movies out there. He ticks all the boxes of a victim of human trafficking … authorities knew this, and yet they did nothing."
The case has made headlines over the past weeks, as the Department of Justice called for High Court judge Mr Justice Kevin Zervos to step down from the judicial review over possible bias, which he refused to do.
"The message and the thinking behind what the government is doing in this case is alarming, and it's very sad," Ho said.
She said she hoped her client would be compensated for not having received help from the government. "He does think that no other human being should have to go through the same thing. In his own words, he wants to fight this case for justice."
In the latest Trafficking in Persons Report issued by the US State Department, Hong Kong was described as "a destination, transit, and source territory for men, women and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labour".
The Hong Kong government said in July that there was "no sign or evidence" that the city had become a human-trafficking hub.
Last week, the United Nations Committee against Torture expressed renewed concerns over exploitation of migrant domestic workers in the city.
A government spokesman told the Post: "Hong Kong attaches great importance to combating trafficking in persons."
This year, authorities have so far detected two cases of human-trafficking syndicates and arrested 16 people.
"The government's efforts in tackling human trafficking include victim identification, enforcement and prosecution, victim protection, and international cooperation," the spokesman said.
He added that "local legislation provides a solid and proven framework to prohibit offences related to trafficking in persons."
But lawyer Ho had a different opinion. Current laws only prohibit human trafficking for the purpose of prostitution, but not for forced labour. “Modern jurisprudence view human trafficking and forced labour akin to the severity of murder. There’s a need to have in place a crime that reflects that,” Ho said.
She noted it’s necessary to introduce support systems on the welfare front and train officials – so they can identify instead of criminalizing victims.
But the education should go beyond the government’s offices. “People are made to believe that this only happens in very underdeveloped places,” she noted. “If people are educated about this issue, they would realise how disgusting it is… I still have some faith in Hong Kong.”