The Legislative Council is currently scrutinizing the Employment (Amendment) (No.2) Bill 2017, under which the administration has proposed that the penalty for overcharging jobseekers in terms of commissions or referral fees by any intermediary or employment agency be raised from the existing fine of HK$50,000 to three years’ imprisonment plus a maximum fine of HK$350,000.
The government has found it necessary to amend the law and raise the penalty because, according to investigations, many local employment agencies specializing in recruiting foreign domestic helpers from Southeast Asian countries are overcharging the workers by way of commissions or “referral fees”, by, in some extreme cases, as much as 26 times more than what is allowed by our law.
As a result, many of the foreign domestic helpers have to spend months working just to pay off these fees.
Under the existing law, employment agencies are allowed to charge no more than 10 percent of a month’s salary of any migrant worker they have successfully recruited and referred, as commissions or referral fees.
The government hopes that by raising the penalty, employment agencies and intermediaries would be deterred from overcharging practices.
In fact according to international definition, charging a migrant worker an excessive amount of commission or referral fee as a condition for helping them find work in a foreign country could constitute the criminal act of “debt bondage”, which is a common form of exploitation in global human-trafficking activities.
People vulnerable to “debt bondage” include foreign domestic helpers, migrant construction site workers and migrant care workers.
In many cases these victims are often forced to pay a huge sum of commission or referral fee to their agents, not to mention that they usually have to endure appalling working conditions.
Worse still, their passports are often withheld by these modern-day slave drivers until their debts are paid off to prevent them from escaping.
The fact that our government is now officially outlawing “debt bondage” automatically begs another question: what about the other forms of exploitation commonly found in human trafficking activities such as sex slavery, forced labor and black market human organ sales?
Unfortunately, the truth is that currently there isn’t a single piece of legislation in Hong Kong that deals specifically with human trafficking activities, let alone outlawing it.
Human trafficking is a global issue. However, despite being an international city, Hong Kong is lagging far behind many other developed countries or regions when it comes to combating the menace.
Perhaps nothing exemplifies our government’s ignorance about global human trafficking activities more than a High Court case at the end of last year which involved a Pakistani migrant worker.
“ZN” arrived in Hong Kong on a work visa a couple of years ago, only to find himself constantly abused by his employer both physically and verbally, and forced to toil for inhumanely long hours without getting paid. What ZN went through was a typical case of human trafficking and forced labor.
Then one day, ZN was tricked by his employer into leaving Hong Kong and returning to Pakistan. After he had finally figured out that the whole thing was a scam, ZN smuggled himself back to Hong Kong and immediately turned himself in to the Immigration Department, hoping that the authorities could help him seek justice.
However, ZN was told by the Immigration Department that he actually went to the wrong place: since he claimed to be a victim of an alleged scam, he should report the matter to the police instead, he was told. ZN then did exactly what he was told.
However, things just kept getting more ridiculous. When ZN turned himself in to the Hong Kong police, he was referred back to the immigration service on the grounds that since he had entered the city illegally, his case should fall within the jurisdiction of the Immigration Department.
That both the police and the immigration service were passing the buck to each other over ZN’s case indicates that they were completely ignorant about global human trafficking activities.
As such, I believe there is an urgent need for our government to legislate specifically and comprehensively against human trafficking and all forms of exploitation involved in it such as forced labor and slavery.
I am going to draft a “Modern Slavery Act” and table it in Legco in order to push for specific legislation.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug 10
Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting
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