Domestic helpers and prostitutes are trapped in debt bondage in Hong Kong

A Journal of People report

A Hong Kong, February 1 2017 datelined Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience,
feature mentioned:
Domestic helpers and prostitutes are trapped in debt bondage. These women are migrants. The prostitutes work in notorious Wanchai’s red-light district.
Citing a U.S. government report, Trafficking in Persons, the “Ex-pimp helps trafficked women cook their way to new HK life” headlined feature by Sylvia Yu Friedman said:
“About 340,000 migrant women, mostly from the Philippines and Indonesia, work as domestic helpers in Hong Kong.

“Some employment agencies charge excessive placement fees or issue fraudulent debt contracts above the legal limit in Hong Kong, leading to debt bondage, the State Department report said. Traffickers trick women from the Philippines and Thailand to work in prostitution in bars, then wield control through crushing debt repayments and by withholding passports.”
The feature cited two cases:
“Kat, 23, is a bar girl and trafficking victim from the Philippines who recently joined the class. About a month ago, Kat says she was tricked into prostitution at a bar in Hong Kong. She was desperate to find work to support her daughter and ill mother. For the next three to four months, she will now have to pay off a debt to the agency that recruited her.
“‘I’m traumatized. There are three other women at my bar that feel the same. I always feel in danger. I take a risk every time I go out with a male customer,’ said Kat as she wept.
“Domestic helper Maria Reyes, 34, is also new to the job training. Sole bread-winner for her 10-year-old son, husband and mother in the Philippines, Reyes was laden with debt after signing an agency contract twice that stipulated she pay back more than 80 percent of her monthly salary for seven months.”
Reyes has worked in Hong Kong since 2012.
US government report Trafficking in Persons Report 2016 – Country Narratives – Hong Kong (USDOS – US Department of State: Trafficking in Persons Report 2016 – Country Narratives – Hong Kong, 30 June 2016 (available at ecoi.net)
http://www.ecoi.net/local_link/326246/452821_en.html (accessed 06 February 2017) said:
“The Hong Kong … is primarily a destination, transit, and to a much lesser extent, a source territory for men, women, and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor. Victims include citizens from mainland China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and other Southeast Asian countries as well as countries in South Asia, Africa, and South America. Approximately 340,000 foreign domestic workers, primarily from Indonesia and the Philippines, work in Hong Kong; some become victims of forced labor in the private homes in which they are employed. Employment agencies generally charge job placement fees in excess of legal limits, which may lead to situations of debt bondage of workers in Hong Kong.”

Debt: 80% of salary
The report said:
“The accumulated debts sometimes amount to up to 80 percent of workers’ salaries for the first seven to eight months of employment. Some workers are unwilling to report abusive employers for fear of losing their jobs and being unable to repay their debts; some employers or employment agencies illegally withhold passports, employment contracts, or other possessions until the debt is paid.”

17-hours a day
The US Government said:
“Domestic workers have also reported working 17-hour days, receiving less than minimum wage, experiencing physical or verbal abuse and confinement in the employer’s home, and not receiving a legally required weekly day off.”
It said:
“An NGO report released in 2016 estimated that as many as one in six foreign domestic workers are victims of labor exploitation. Some foreign domestic workers sign contracts to work in Hong Kong but upon arrival are sent to work in mainland China or the Middle East. Separately, criminal syndicates or acquaintances sometimes lure women to Hong Kong using false promises of lucrative employment and subsequently force them into prostitution to repay money owed for passage to Hong Kong. Traffickers sometimes psychologically coerce sex trafficking victims by threatening to reveal photos or recordings of the victims’ sexual encounters to their families.”
It said:
“Authorities’ investigations and prosecutions for labor trafficking were inadequate for the scale of the problem, and there were no convictions for labor trafficking in 2015 because there remains no specific criminal offense related to the crime. Hong Kong’s laws do not prohibit all forms of trafficking and authorities continued to define human trafficking as the trans-border movement of people for prostitution, inconsistent with the 2000 UN TIP Protocol.”

Light burden of sentence
The report said:
“While the government convicted eight traffickers during the reporting period, sentences were incommensurate with the gravity of the crime, with three perpetrators sentenced to seven months’ imprisonment or less. The government did not appropriately penalize employment agencies that perpetuated labor trafficking via debt bondage.”
Citing different types of problems, the report said:
“Labor tribunals lacked sufficient translation services, did not provide the right to counsel, and often had judges inexperienced with forced labor cases. Some trafficking victims may have been punished for crimes committed as a direct result of being subjected to trafficking. The government continued to fund partially six NGO-run shelters and three government-owned and -operated shelters for victims of abuse and trafficking, and identified 16 trafficking victims during the reporting period. It continued distribution of anti-trafficking information pamphlets to foreign domestic workers, law enforcement training, and cooperation with the consulates of labor-sending countries.”

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