Hong Kong human trafficking case leads to landmark court ruling

Escaping slavery in Hong Kong
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Story highlights

  • A Pakistani man says he was forced to work unpaid at a Hong Kong cell phone store
  • Hong Kong has no specific laws against human trafficking or forced labor

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Hong Kong (CNN)He needed help.

It was 2012 and he had just returned to Hong Kong, smuggled in illegally by boat.
The man -- who goes by the court-assigned pseudonym ZN -- says he had spent four years, working seven days a week in a Hong Kong cell phone store, sleeping on the floor and suffering beatings at the hands of his employer. Then his boss sent him back to his native Pakistan without a cent in pay. When he demanded his money, he says, his boss' associates back in Pakistan threatened to kill him and his family.
    So he came back, determined to get his money.
    "Even after I came back to Hong Kong all I was asking for was my wages," he says. "I went to several government departments but no one would listen."
    ZN's case was the basis for a landmark judicial review that has the potential to change the way Hong Kong deals with cases of human trafficking.
    In his 150-page ruling, high court judge Kevin Zervos found that Hong Kong's immigration, labor and police departments failed to identify ZN as a possible victim of human trafficking and provide him with support or protection.
    Zervos, in his ruling, places the blame firmly on the system, saying it lacks "any effective framework or set of measures to address human trafficking or forced labor." Hong Kong has no specific laws against either offense.
    "He was left floundering in a system in which concern for victims of human trafficking for forced labor is mainly a rhetorical maneuver," Zervos writes.
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    A rarity in Asia

    Hong Kong is one of the few places in Asia that does not criminalize human trafficking and forced labor.
    "It is so shocking," says human rights lawyer Patricia Ho, who represented ZN. "Even Pakistan, the Philippines, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan ... they all have forced labor and trafficking laws."
    The Hong Kong government argues that conduct known as human trafficking is covered by a number of existing local laws, including physical abuse, false imprisonment and criminal intimidation.
    In a statement provided to CNN, the government states that "notwithstanding the rare occurrence of trafficking in persons (TIP) in Hong Kong, Hong Kong attaches great importance to combating human trafficking. We have a package of well-established legislative and administrative measures to combat TIP."
    The government goes on to detail a number of these measures, including a pilot program introducing a new mechanism to help immigration officials and police better identify victims of trafficking and new guidelines for interdepartmental cooperation on such cases.

    Hidden in plain sight

    Mallika is one of the nearly 340,000 foreign domestic workers who live in Hong Kong. We are not using her real name, because of her ongoing legal cases.
    Like many others, Mallika arrived in Hong Kong to provide domestic labor to a local family and earn money to send back to Sri Lanka. According to Mallika, her employer paid her just over $300 US a month, while asking her to clean multiple homes and hotel rooms and providing her with just two days off a month.
    "They didn't care how I survived," she says. "They just took work out of me."
    Hong Kong employers are required to provide domestic workers with a minimum monthly wage of $555 US, along with food, housing and at least one day off each week. Mallika speaks only Sinhalese and was working in an isolated part of Hong Kong. She wasn't aware her employers were breaking the rules.
    "I was lost but I didn't have anyone to tell," she says.
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    After about three years of work, she met another Sri Lankan migrant on a day off. Only then, she says, did she understand that her employer was breaking the law and sought help. She ultimately had a psychiatric breakdown.
    Anti-trafficking and forced labor organizations consider foreign domestic helpers among Hong Kong's most vulnerable populations.
    So does the US State Department, which in its 2016 Trafficking in Persons report recommended that Hong Kong do more to prosecute labor traffickers, recruiters and employment agencies that exploit foreign domestic workers.
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    It is also put Hong Kong on the Tier 2 Watch List because compared to 2015 "the government did not demonstrate overall increasing anti-trafficking efforts."
    The report places each country onto one of three tiers based on their government's efforts to eliminate trafficking -- with Tier 1 governments doing most, and Tier 3 doing least.
    Tina Chan, project manager at the anti-trafficking organization STOP, said Hong Kong needs to step up its efforts to help victims.
    "The truth is, whenever we come across a victim of trafficking and that person requires a shelter or medical support the answer we get from different government departments is no," Chan says.
    The government says it is taking more steps to protect domestic workers, including introducing a multilingual website educating them on their rights, and prosecuting and revoking licenses from employment agencies that break the rules -- and it says it has jailed at least one employer for abuse.
    At the same time, Hong Kong authorities have lodged an appeal over the judicial review of ZN's case.
    Both Chan and Ho hope that in the end the ruling will lead to criminalization of human trafficking and forced labor.
    "If it takes one judicial review, two or 10 of them to push the government to start doing more to protect these victims, it's worth it," Ho says.
    ZN's employer has yet to be charged with a crime in connection to his case.