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Human Trafficking in Hong Kong : the misconceptions

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In the recent years, Human Trafficking has been recognized as a growing Human Rights issue in Asia.[1] However, the tendency to generalise various situations as “Human Trafficking”, to bring more awareness to the issue can be very harmful to the persons it is supposed to protect.

In the late 70’s, when Honk Kong’s female labor force was mobilized, domestic workers from countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand or Vietnam came in to fill in the gaps.[2] Today, domestic workers are crucial to numerous Hong Kongese families and to Hong Kong’s economy. Unfortunately, this fact isn’t preventing the unfair treatment and exploitation of the helpers.[3]

Even though their rights are codified in an Employment Ordinance, the lack of implementation and enforcement of those rights often lead to abuse : unfair terminations, unpaid wages, financial debt, physical and verbal violence, uneasy access to justice, to quote a few. As everything is happening behind closed doors, the risk of human rights, criminal and labor law violations is very high, and the workers often fear to complain. In 2018, the US TIP Report even put Hong Kong in their TIER 2 watchlist, which considers that the government is not fully meeting the minimum standards on Human Trafficking.[4]

In Hong Kong, countless NGOs and journalists have been raising concern towards the climate in which foreign domestic workers are currently working, often overusing the words “Human Traffick”. In fact “Human Trafficking”[5] is an umbrella term which include sex trafficking and forced labor.[6] Whereas “Forced labor” is an “accumulation of human rights abuses rather than individual violations of labor laws” that can amount to trafficking for forced labor.[7] Furthermore, “Modern day slavery” is the “complete ownership of a person over another as their property and the legal entrenchment that certain human beings are inferior and without rights”, and debt bondage is nowadays considered as one of the most common method of enslavement.[8] Yet, those serious human rights violations must not be confused with other violations of the Employment Ordinance or the Criminal law, like underpayment of wages, denial of rest days and other abuses, because each label has its own characteristics.[9] 

However, the will of some actors to raise the issues lived by domestic workers solely through the lens of strong wordings is making victims face higher requirements as to their situations which might not be at all adapted. Indeed, when we hear "Human Trafficking" in Hong Kong, who then will care about the thousands of unpaid/untaken rest days...  

Therefore, to achieve legal solutions and apprehend at best the issues and foster change in the system there is a crucial need to use the right terms.[10] Confuse all of those different situations and unlawful violations will stay unaddressed. To foster change and improve the legal gaps, let's be precise ! 

[1]See United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime about Human Trafficking, website :

[2]See Hong Kong’s Labour Department, website :

[3]Jason Wordie, Human trafficking in Hong Kong : hidden in plain sight, 16 janvier 2016. Available on :

[4]See US Government, TIP Report 2018. Available on :

[5]According to the : United Nations, Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punishing Traffick in Persons, article 3 par. a : Human Trafficking can consist on “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs”. Available on :

[6]Justice Centre Hong Kong and Liberty Asia, How many more years a slave ? Trafficking for forced labour in Hong Kong, March 2014, p.7. Available on :

[7]Indicators of such issue can be seen in factors like threats or actual physical or sexual violence, restriction of movement, debt bondage, withholding of wages, retention of passport or threat of denunciation to the authorities. Op. cit. N6, p.8.

[8]Op. cit. N6, p. 8.

[9]See Employment Ordinance of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Available on :

[10]See Joanna Chiu, Report slams Hong Kong for “narrow, fragmented laws” that fail to stop human trafficking”, 28 mars 2014. Available on :

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