I believe very few would dispute the importance of passports, as they are proof of one’s identity and they allow us to travel abroad. Regrettably, many foreign domestic workers (‘FDWs’) in Hong Kong are forced to give up their paspor/pasaporte as collateral when they take out a loan, despite the fact that this is illegal under Hong Kong law. Between 2017 and 2019, following intense investigations, the Hong Kong Police Force disbanded several loan-shark syndicates and seized from them over 2000 passports belonging to FDWs.
Considering that this criminal offence carries a maximum penalty of $100,000 and an imprisonment term of 2 years, why has it failed to serve a deterrent effect? The answer lies in the extremely light sentence imposed by the court, presumably because the judiciary fails to understand the huge implications this conduct has on FDWs.
Just last week, the Eastern Magistrates’ Court heard the case of HKSAR v Wong King Yiu Wilson (ESCC2539/2019), where both the money lending company and its director were prosecuted for the offence of withholding over 1400 passports. The company was fined a mere $10,000 and the director was bound over for two years as part of a plea bargain.
Assuming that the company withheld 1400 passports, a fine of $10,000 would mean that the company was only fined about $7 for withholding each passport. Yes, just $7 for each passport. Is this proportional to the consequences suffered by the FDWs? No.
It is right that we all need a passport to travel. If a FDW is deprived of her passport, she cannot travel to her home country, even during emergencies. It is as simple as that. Moreover, under the Two-Week Rule, FDWs whose contracts are completed or terminated must find new employment within the next 14 days. Failing that, they are required to leave Hong Kong. Since leaving Hong Kong is rendered impossible by the withholding of passports, FDWs are prone to overstaying their visas. So, what does it mean for FDWs in the wider context? It means that FDWs will try their best to avoid the termination of their employment contract. They will be forced to remain in an employment situation, even if it is abusive.
In light of these potential consequences, would you think that each passport is only worth $7?
Money Lenders Ordinance (Cap. 163), ss 29(5) and 34, Money Lenders Regulation (Cap. 163A), s 12(a)
Michelle Chan and Mary Ann Benitez, ‘Loan sharks arrested after preying on helpers’, The Standard (Hong Kong, 15 March 2017) <http://www.thestandard.com.hk/section-news.php?id=180742> accessed 2 December 2019, Philip C. Tubeza, ‘HK Police recover 422 Philippine passports from loan shark’, Hong Kong News (Hong Kong, 31 August 2018) <http://hongkongnews.com.hk/top_stories/hk-police-recover-422-philippine-passports-from-loan-shark/> accessed 2 December 2019, Anonymous, ‘Hong Kong Police Seizes over 1,400 Philippine Passports Used As Collateral For Loans’, Coconuts Manila (Hong Kong, 3 July 2019) <https://coconuts.co/manila/news/hong-kong-police-seizes-over-1400-philippines-passports-used-as-collateral-for-loans/> accessed 2 December 2019
Money Lenders Ordinance (Cap. 163), s 32(a)
Daisy CL Mandap, ‘Cheers fined $10k for collecting 1,400 Phl passports as security for loans’, The Sun Hong Kong (Hong Kong, 22 November 2019) <http://www.sunwebhk.com/2019/11/cheers-ofc-fined-10k-for-collecting.html?m=1> accessed 2 December 2019
Immigration Department the Government of the HKSAR, Conditions of Employment for Foreign Domestic Helpers <https://www.legco.gov.hk/yr13-14/chinese/panels/ca/papers/ca0217cb2-850-7-ec.pdf> accessed 2 December 2019