The government maintained efforts to prevent trafficking. Although many agencies were fully occupied with implementing new public health measures as part of the government’s pandemic mitigation efforts, the government reported it did not divert resources from implementing the 2018 anti-trafficking action plan. The government continued to publicly deny that trafficking is a prevalent crime in Hong Kong, undercutting the anti-trafficking efforts of government officials and the NGO community. An anti-trafficking steering committee led by the Chief Secretary for Administration and the inter-departmental working group led by the security bureau continued to meet. The government continued to allocate 62.23 million Hong Kong dollars ($8.03 million) in its annual budget to fund 98 positions within various agencies dedicated to trafficking issues. Except for working with an NGO to investigate one potential case of labor trafficking, the government did not report efforts to improve collaboration with civil society. In addition, following the imposition of the National Security Law by the Chinese National People’s Congress on Hong Kong in June 2020, under which any speech critical of the government or its policies could be construed as pro-secession, subversive, or inciting hate against the government, along with increased restrictions to freedom of expression, NGOs and other civil society organizations were less willing to engage with the government, including on human trafficking.
The government did not conduct campaigns to raise awareness of sex trafficking. To improve awareness of the rights of foreign domestic workers and the responsibilities of employers, the government continued to distribute information packets to workers and employers, publish advertisements in Filipino and Indonesian language newspapers, operate workers’ rights information kiosks in public areas, work with the Philippine and Indonesian consulates to provide briefings to newly arriving domestic workers, and publish translated versions of standard employment contracts in 11 foreign languages. The government continued to distribute information cards created by an international organization that listed information on support services available to foreign domestic workers and trafficking victims.
The government’s process for evaluating non-refoulement claims, which did not allow claimants to legally work in Hong Kong, made some refugees vulnerable to trafficking. In addition, the government’s policies requiring foreign domestic workers to live with their employer and to return to their home countries within two weeks after their contracts’ termination (“two week rule”) increased the ability of abusive employers and unscrupulous employment agencies to subject workers to trafficking. In September 2020, the Court of Appeals upheld the government’s live-in requirement. The requirement that workers live with their employers enabled exploitative employers to limit workers freedom of movement and communications, and sometimes required workers to live in inadequate conditions. The lack of regulations setting a maximum number of legal working hours for foreign domestic workers also contributed to their vulnerability. Throughout the pandemic, the live-in requirement contributed to many workers facing increased workloads and daily work hours, and some employers denied workers’ the ability to take their mandated day off. Observers reported the “two week rule” continued to deter workers from reporting or exiting exploitative conditions. Due to travel restrictions related to the pandemic in both Hong Kong and workers’ home countries, the government temporarily suspended the “two week rule,” allowing some workers to remain in Hong Kong and seek new employment after their contracts ended. Although the government requested employers pay the costs associated with quarantine requirements for workers entering Hong Kong during the pandemic, this was not a requirement, and NGOs reported some employment agencies charged both employers and workers, who incurred additional debt from employment agencies from these expenses, further increasing their vulnerability to debt-based coercion.
The government reported convicting eight employers of foreign domestic workers for illegally using workers to perform duties outside their contracts (34 in 2019) but did not report the number convicted for non- or under-payment of wages (three in 2019); sentences included community service and up to two months’ imprisonment, which were suspended for two years. The government allowed employers previously convicted for exploiting foreign domestic workers to continue to hire workers. Temporary closures of labor tribunals during pandemic-related lockdowns throughout the reporting period resulted in a backlog of cases, which meant some foreign domestic workers with pending cases were required to apply for multiple visa extensions to remain in Hong Kong. Each visa extension lasted two weeks and cost workers 230 Hong Kong dollars ($30), and the government did not permit these workers to work under visa extensions. At the onset of the pandemic, the government reported it would grant free visa extensions on a case-by-case basis. However, workers still faced difficulties obtaining extensions in practice. In June, the government began to grant automatic 30-day free visa extensions to the majority of workers’ applications.
Hong Kong law permitted employment agencies to charge job seekers, including foreign domestic workers, up to 10 percent of their first months’ salary in recruitment fees. Since enforcement of this rule was lacking, agencies often charged much higher fees and confiscated workers’ passports and/or contracts as collateral, practices which perpetuated debt-based coercion. The government required employment agencies to comply with a code of practice covering statutory requirements and standards for Hong Kong-based employment agencies. Despite being a violation of the code of practice, observers reported money lenders and employment agencies often operated at the same address without consequence; this enabled employment agencies complicit in labor trafficking to indebt workers through loans for recruitment fees that were often beyond the legal limits. The government did not report the number of inspections of employment agencies conducted by the Employment Agencies Administration (EAA) in 2020, compared with approximately 2,000 inspections in 2019. The EAA lacked sufficient resources, and its inspections of agencies were ineffective and often only consisted of cursory reviews of documentation. In addition, the EAA did not proactively investigate unscrupulous agencies and typically required a victim to make a complaint against an agency before initiating an investigation. The EAA was not regularly open on Sundays—the only non-work day for most foreign domestic workers—preventing some workers from filing complaints. To facilitate the ability of foreign domestic workers to make inquiries and complaints, LD operated an online portal as well as a 24-hour hotline available in nine languages. In 2020, LD prosecuted 11 agencies for overcharging workers, operating without a license, or other violations, but it did not report the number convicted (10 agencies convicted in 2019). LD cited non-compliance of the code of practice in decisions to revoke or reject the renewal of licenses of seven employment agencies in 2020 (13 in 2019). Nevertheless, some employment agencies reportedly continued to operate—and unlawfully retain workers’ passports with impunity—after losing their licenses, sometimes reopening under different names. In addition, NGOs reported fines and other penalties given to employment agencies exploiting foreign domestic workers were too light and did not act as a deterrent. Despite having the legal discretion to revoke agency licenses administratively, observers reported the EAA over-relied on criminal convictions of agencies to do so. The government did not make efforts to reduce demand for commercial sex acts. The government did not provide anti-trafficking training to its personnel posted overseas. While the People’s Republic of China included Macau in its accession to the 2000 UN TIP Protocol in 2010, it stated the Protocol “shall not apply” to Hong Kong.