All-out Multi-pronged Efforts to Combat Trafficking in Persons and Protect Foreign Domestic Helpers
10 March 2019
Hong Kong is making all-out and multi-pronged efforts to combat trafficking in persons (TIP) and enhance the protection and well-being of its 390 000 foreign domestic helpers (FDHs).
The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) Government has provided $62 million recurrent funding in the Financial Secretary’s 2019-20 Budget to create 98 new posts to vigorously implement the Action Plan to Tackle TIP and to Enhance Protection of FDHs.
This will significantly boost the anti-TIP capacity of the Hong Kong Police Force, Immigration Department (ImmD), Customs and Excise Department (C&ED), Labour Department (LD) and Department of Justice.
In March 2018, the Government established a high-level Steering Committee to Tackle TIP and to Enhance Protection of FDHs. It is chaired by the Chief Secretary for Administration, with the Secretary for Security and Secretary for Labour and Welfare (SLW) as joint Vice Chairmen plus relevant department heads as members.
The Action Plan is truly “action-oriented”. Of the package of 14 new measures (and 20 ongoing measures) promulgated in the Action Plan, ten new ones have already been implemented, with the remaining four to be rolled out later this year. The notable progress made in the past year shows that our relentless efforts are paying good dividends.
ImmD first introduced a TIP victim screening mechanism in 2015, followed by partial implementation by the Police and C&ED in 2016 and 2017. The Police has further extended the mechanism to cover all police districts and relevant units, doubling the coverage of the mechanism as compared with 2017. C&ED has also extended the implementation of the mechanism department-wide.
As a result, over 7 500 initial screenings of vulnerable persons (e.g. illegal immigrants, sex workers, illegal workers, FDHs, imported workers, etc.) were conducted in 2018, tripling the figure of 2 500 in 2016. Over 110 full debriefings were conducted, almost four times over 2017.
It is important to note that despite our proactive and intensified screening efforts, the percentage of victims identified has remained at a low level of less than 0.3% (with only 18 victims identified in 2018), reinforcing our observation all along that TIP is not prevalent in Hong Kong. However, we are not complacent and will remain vigilant.
We leaped also in quality. In 2018, the Police, ImmD and C&ED worked closely together to improve the victim screening form, particularly drawing reference to similar screening tools published by the Civil Society Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force. A better tool will produce more accurate results in future.
Investigation and Enforcement
Another important breakthrough is the development of a joint investigation protocol, under which potential victims will be jointly interviewed by relevant departments where needed, so as to spare them the agonies and traumatic experience of going through separate interviews and repeating the same story to different departments. The protocol has already been applied to at least one live case, and will be applied to suitable cases in future. This is, indeed, a major achievement of the Steering Committee.
Separately, all relevant departments have appointed dedicated teams or designated focal points to handle TIP-related cases, greatly enhancing the overall and inter-departmental coordination on enforcement.
Enhancing protection of FDHs
A major focus of the Steering Committee is the well-being of FDHs in Hong Kong, with a current population of over 390 000 and growing, constituting about 10% of our labour force. In the past two decades, the number of FDHs working here has more than doubled, clearly demonstrating that Hong Kong is one of the most popular destinations for FDHs around the world.
Since April 2018, LD has stepped up enforcement against employment agencies (EAs) to complement the six-fold increase in penalties against EAs for overcharging or operating without licences following the enactment of the Employment (Amendment) Ordinance in February 2018. The annual target for inspection of EAs was raised to 2 000 in 2018, a 54% increase over 2014. The publication of conviction or warning records of EAs on the dedicated EA Portal (www.eaa.labour.gov.hk) since October 2018 will enable employers at large and job seekers, including FDHs, to make more informed decisions.
In December 2018, LD launched a dedicated 24-hour hotline (2157 9537) to provide one-stop support for FDHs in making enquiries and seeking advice on their employment rights and obligations. Interpretation service is provided in seven FDH native languages. Also, an online form has been made available on LD’s FDH Portal (www.fdh.labour.gov.hk) and EA Portal to facilitate FDHs to make enquiries and lodge complaints. These are potent examples of the Government’s commitment in protecting the well-being of our FDH workforce which has been making significant contribution to Hong Kong.
To further safeguard the interests of FDHs and step up Government-to-Government cooperation, the SLW visited Jakarta, Indonesia, in January 2019. The two governments re-affirmed their mutual commitment to safeguard the interests of FDHs working in Hong Kong and agreed to enhance cooperation and maintain close dialogue.
Training and Partnership
In 2018, we also stepped up staff training, with over 2 300 officials from various departments and organisations receiving TIP-related training locally or overseas (around 30% more than 2017). In particular, the Hospital Authority and the Multi-purpose Crisis Intervention and Support Centre also participated in such training sessions for the first time.
Separately, to foster stronger partnership with the civil society, my team and I actively participated in events and campaigns organised by different local and international organisations in the past year, including the International Conference on Combatting Human Trafficking in April 2018, the Launch of the Handbook on Initial Victim Identification and Assistance for Trafficked Persons organised by the Civil Society Anti- Human Trafficking Task Force in July 2018 and the Eliminating Modern Slavery and Trafficking within Supply Chains organised by the British Consulate General in December 2018. I have full confidence that the closer we all work together, the more difficult it is for TIP crimes to set foot and take root in Hong Kong.
The Year Ahead
The above achievements highlight that 2018 was a pivotal and crucial year for Hong Kong in the ongoing fight against TIP. Of course, there is never room for complacency. With over $62 million of recurrent additional resources injected in the new financial year, we should be well placed to redouble our efforts.
In particular, LD will implement an initial victim screening mechanism in its 10 Labour Relations branch offices throughout Hong Kong so that FDHs potentially being exploited or abused may be identified at an early stage. LD will also explore in earnest with relevant Government departments more measures to further facilitate FDHs to act as prosecution witnesses, as well as step up publicity and education on the rights and benefits of FDHs.
Separately, ImmD will set up a new designated team to conduct preliminary checking on FDH visa applications in order to identify potential TIP or exploitation indicators early as well. Investigation into suspected TIP and exploitation of FDH cases will begin as soon as possible when needed.
The HKSAR Government attaches great importance to tackling TIP, which is a very serious crime. Although there is no sign that Hong Kong is being actively used by transnational syndicates as a destination or transit point for TIP, or that TIP is a widespread or prevalent problem in Hong Kong, we must stay vigilant.
As a vibrant international metropolis, Hong Kong attaches immense importance to the rule of law. We have a host of effective and comprehensive legislation to combat TIP crimes and protect FDHs. Our multi-legislation approach targeting TIP has served Hong Kong well. It is thus unfair and groundless for some critics to accuse the HKSAR Government of lacking the determination in tackling TIP simply because there is no composite TIP law.
As I shared with members of various non-government organisations at a meeting last month to exchange views on issues relating to TIP, our intensified efforts and improvements achieved so far, as well as our ongoing plans to further improve our measures, should be duly recognised. Figures and facts always speak much louder than mere perception. All objective indicators based on facts indicate that we are on the right track in combating TIP and protecting FDHs.
The Steering Committee under my chairmanship will continue to press ahead with the Action Plan at full speed and ensure that all measures proposed are fully and effectively implemented. Our resolve to combat TIP and protect our valued workforce of FDHs is beyond doubt.