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Hong Kong (Tier 2 Watch List)

The Government of Hong Kong does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so. These efforts included increasing screening of vulnerable populations for trafficking indicators and meeting with civil society organizations to consider recommendations to improve the effectiveness of victim identification procedures. The government trained more officials than the previous year and prosecuted an increased number of employers of foreign domestic workers for crimes including assault and causing bodily harm. The government reported conducting increased law enforcement actions against illegal brothels and perpetrators who solicit commercial sex acts from child sex trafficking victims, however, the government did not identify any sex trafficking victims during these operations. However, the government did not demonstrate overall increasing efforts compared with the previous reporting period, even considering the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, if any, on its anti-trafficking capacity. The government did not prosecute or convict any labor traffickers and sentenced criminals convicted for crimes related to sex trafficking to inadequate penalties. Despite the government screening thousands of vulnerable persons for trafficking indicators, it identified only one victim, a decrease compared with identifying three victims during the previous reporting period. Ineffective implementation of victim identification procedures continued to result in inadequate victim identification and contributed to authorities penalizing victims for unlawful acts traffickers compelled them to commit. The government did not enact legislation to fully criminalize all forms of trafficking. Because the government has devoted sufficient resources to a written plan that, if implemented, would constitute significant efforts to meet the minimum standards, Hong Kong was granted a waiver per the Trafficking Victims Protection Act from an otherwise required downgrade to Tier 3. Therefore Hong Kong remained on Tier 2 Watch List for the third consecutive year.

  • Improve the quality of screenings conducted to identify trafficking victims, increasingly screen individuals in commercial sex for trafficking, and ensure children in commercial sex are identified as trafficking victims and refer them to services.
  • Cease penalization of victims for unlawful acts traffickers compel them to commit and increase interagency coordination to ensure authorities do not punish victims through immigration proceedings, including before investigating the traffickers.
  • Vigorously investigate and prosecute suspected sex and labor traffickers and sentence convicted traffickers to significant prison terms.
  • Enact legislation that criminalizes all forms of trafficking in accordance with the definition set forth in the 2000 UN TIP Protocol.
  • Engage in continuous and regular collaboration with NGOs and social welfare experts to update anti-trafficking policies; review victim-centered interview processes and investigations; establish improved services for trafficking victims; and create in-depth training programs for the judiciary, labor tribunal, and other task force stakeholders.
  • Ensure authorities offer and refer trafficking victims to services.
  • Provide adequate services in Hong Kong to non-resident victims, including children, including before their repatriation.
  • Allow foreign victims to work and study in Hong Kong while participating in judicial proceedings against traffickers.
  • Increase protections for foreign domestic workers to reduce their vulnerability to trafficking, including by prohibiting worker-charged recruitment fees, permanently eliminating the “two week rule,” affording workers an option to live outside their place of employment and creating legal maximum working hours.
  • Proactively investigate unscrupulous employment agencies and money lenders for their complicity in labor trafficking and penalize convicted agency operators.

The government maintained anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts; the absence of laws that fully criminalize trafficking made it difficult both to accurately assess the government’s prosecution efforts compared with the previous year and to determine which law enforcement actions involved human trafficking as defined by international law. Hong Kong law did not criminalize all forms of human trafficking, and the government relied on various provisions of laws relating to prostitution, immigration, employment, and physical abuse to prosecute trafficking crimes. Inconsistent with international law, Section 129 of the Crimes Ordinance, which criminalized “trafficking in persons to or from Hong Kong,” required transnational movement and did not require the use of force, fraud, or coercion. Section 129 prescribed penalties of up to 10 years’ imprisonment, which were sufficiently stringent and, with respect to sex trafficking, commensurate with punishments prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. Section 130 criminalized the harboring, controlling, or directing of a person for the purpose of prostitution and prescribed penalties of up to 14 years’ imprisonment. Section 131 criminalized procuring a person to engage in commercial sex acts and prescribed penalties of up to 10 years’ imprisonment. Section 137 criminalized living on the earnings of commercial sex acts of others and prescribed penalties of up to 10 years imprisonment.

The government initiated an investigation of one potential labor trafficking case, compared to three in 2020, but did not report prosecuting or convicting any cases of labor trafficking for the third consecutive year. The government did not report the number of sex trafficking investigations or prosecutions initiated in 2021, but it reported arresting 20 suspects (27 in 2020) during investigations for offenses related to sex trafficking, including for violations of Sections 130 and 137 of the Crimes Ordinance. Courts convicted four criminals for sex trafficking-related crimes in 2021 (one conviction in 2020) and sentenced two of the criminals to four and eight months’ imprisonment. Such short sentences did not serve to deter trafficking crimes or adequately reflect the nature of the offense. The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government employees complicit in human trafficking offenses.

Law enforcement officials often did not adequately investigate trafficking cases, sometimes closed cases with clear indicators of trafficking, and did not employ a victim-centered, trauma-informed approach when interviewing victims. The government reported using a “joint investigative process” in trafficking cases to coordinate interviews of victims among law enforcement agencies; however, in previous reporting periods, observers reported limited coordination between law enforcement agencies in practice, which resulted in agencies separately investigating different aspects of cases. Law enforcement did not adequately prosecute operators of unscrupulous employment agencies or money lenders for their roles in facilitating labor trafficking through debt-based coercion. The absence of laws criminalizing all forms of trafficking impeded officials’ ability to investigate or charge suspected traffickers. This also resulted in the prosecution of trafficking crimes under laws with weak penalties. Well-founded fears of penalization and the absence of adequate services resulted in many victims choosing not to report their exploitation or declining to cooperate with authorities in investigations. Inadequate victim identification led to victims identified by NGOs pursuing justice in civil tribunal courts and the government did not pursue criminal cases against the traffickers. NGOs previously reported judicial officials lacked an awareness of trafficking.

The government provided trafficking-related training to approximately 1,700 officials from various agencies in 2021, compared with 880 trained in 2020. Adjusting to pandemic-related travel restrictions, which prevented their ability to attend overseas trainings, officials also joined online workshops and webinars. The Security Bureau cosponsored its sixth joint anti-trafficking training program with the EU in January 2022 for officials from various agencies and civil society organizations. The police force employed dedicated teams for investigating trafficking and the exploitation of foreign domestic workers. The government also reported having designated points of contact for trafficking issues within relevant agencies since 2018. Nonetheless, civil society organizations continued to report being unable to reach these designated contacts and teams, including when attempting to refer victims to police, and some reported government officials could not direct them to a person responsible for trafficking in their agency.

The government maintained inadequate efforts to protect victims. Police, immigration, and customs officials used a two-tiered identification mechanism to screen vulnerable populations for indicators of trafficking. Through this mechanism, officials referred potential victims for a full identification “debriefing” after determining whether an individual met at least one of seven indicators listed on the standard screening form of the first tier of the identification mechanism. Officials screened 7,678 individuals in 2021, compared to 6,912 screened in 2020, but only identified one victim (exploited in labor trafficking); this was a decrease compared with identifying three victims in 2020. Authorities’ implementation of the screening mechanism and victim identification was ineffective and inconsistent, and they lacked understanding of psychological trauma associated with trafficking. The government’s anti-trafficking task force met with civil society organizations to receive feedback on the screening process and accepted proposals for improving the process; however, the government did not report making any adjustments to the identification process by the end of the reporting period. Law enforcement often did not use a trauma-informed approach while interviewing potential victims during the identification process, which exacerbated victims’ emotional distress and, since authorities conducted interviews over many hours without adequate breaks, often did not successfully identify indicators of trafficking. The standard screening form listed the vulnerable populations authorities were required to screen, but it did not list any groups that included Hong Kong citizens. Although the government reported expanding screening of foreign domestic workers in 2021 to include all workers who applied for a new or to renew an existing worker visa, authorities did not routinely screen individuals in commercial sex for trafficking indicators. Hong Kong’s low age of consent, 16, further complicated efforts to identify child victims exploited in commercial sex as trafficking victims. Despite media reports indicating officials identified children in commercial sex during police raids on brothels, government authorities did not identify them as victims of trafficking or refer them to services. The failure to consistently provide potential victims with immediate stabilizing care upon their initial contact with authorities, as well as a lack of legal assistance for victims, also likely impeded officials’ ability to effectively interview victims and identify trafficking indicators. In previous years, authorities failed to identify mainland People’s Republic of China (PRC) national child victims of sex trafficking who were found during anti-vice operations, and authorities deported them without providing adequate assistance; however, in 2021, authorities did not report finding any such victims during anti-vice operations.

The government did not report providing services to any victims. The government reported agencies could refer potential victims to anti-trafficking teams and provide them services; however, authorities did not refer any victims to services, and the government lacked a formal referral process and clear guidance for officials to inform victims of available services. Victims commonly preferred to receive services provided by foreign consulates or NGOs, rather than services offered by the government. The government partially subsidized six NGO-operated and three government-operated shelters that served victims of violence, abuse, and exploitation, including trafficking victims. These shelters could provide temporary accommodation, counseling, and medical and psychological services to local and foreign victims, regardless of gender or age. However, some services were not available to foreign victims, including welfare and social services provided by the Social Welfare Department.

The government could assist foreign victims, including domestic workers, to return to Hong Kong to serve as witnesses in trials by providing financial assistance but did not report doing so during the reporting period. To enable foreign victims to temporarily remain in Hong Kong, the government could provide visa extensions with fee waivers and could provide victims who were foreign domestic workers with permission to change their employer. Inconsistent coordination between immigration officials and police made it difficult for victims to obtain visa extensions in practice. Authorities generally did not permit foreign victims, including those given visa extensions, to work or study while they remained in Hong Kong, unless an exception was granted; this likely deterred some victims from remaining in Hong Kong to participate as witnesses in investigations against traffickers. Hong Kong law allowed victims to seek compensation from traffickers through civil suits and labor tribunals. Nonetheless, a shortage of interpretation services, lack of trained attorneys, inability to work while awaiting a decision, and judges’ inexperience with forced labor cases sometimes impaired victims’ attempts to claim back wages or restitution through labor tribunals and deterred some from bringing claims forward.

Due to a lack of effective identification procedures, authorities likely detained, arrested, and deported some unidentified trafficking victims. Authorities penalized victims for unlawful acts traffickers compelled them to commit. During police raids in brothels, authorities arrested individuals in commercial sex, did not screen them for indicators of trafficking, and deported foreign individuals without screening. The government typically initiated immigration proceedings against victims, rather than referring them to services and investigating or prosecuting the traffickers. In addition, anecdotal reporting suggested authorities continued to penalize victims of forced criminality, specifically those coerced to carry drugs into Hong Kong, without screening them for trafficking indicators. The government could grant immunity from prosecution to victims identified through the screening mechanism, as well as exploited foreign domestic workers, and reported granting immunity to two individuals in 2021.

The government maintained efforts to prevent trafficking. 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. A governmental 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 allocated 62.23 million Hong Kong dollars ($7.98 million) in its annual budget to continue implementation of the 2018 anti-trafficking action plan, the same amount it allocated the previous year. 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 reported they were more cautious in their engagement with the government, including on human trafficking. The government passed legislation in October 2021 that prohibited the “publication or threatened publication of intimate images without consent,” which could target those who coerce victims into commercial sex acts through threats of online distribution of photographs.

The government reported conducting 60 raids on illegal brothels in 2021, an increase compared to 41 conducted in 2020. 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, 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 previous requirement to return to their home countries within two weeks after their contracts’ termination (“two-week rule”) increased workers’ vulnerability to exploitation by abusive employers and unscrupulous employment agencies. The requirement that workers live with their employers enabled exploitative employers to limit workers’ freedom of movement and communications, and sometimes employers 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 increased workers’ workloads and daily work hours, and some employers denied workers the ability to take their mandated day off. Previously, the “two-week rule” likely deterred 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 workers to remain in Hong Kong and seek new employment after their contracts ended. NGOs reported this suspension, as well as domestic workers’ increased bargaining power with employment agencies due to a decrease in available foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong, contributed to a decrease in workers’ risk of exploitation and debt-based coercion. One NGO study found that fewer employment agencies charged workers illegal fees during the year. Although the government requested employers pay the costs associated with quarantine requirements for workers entering Hong Kong during the pandemic, it did not require it, 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 prosecuted 20 employers of foreign domestic workers (8 in 2020) and convicted five for offenses such as assault, causing bodily harm, and criminal intimidation; courts imposed sentences ranging from fines to 30 months’ imprisonment. The government also reported convicting 16 employers of foreign domestic workers for illegally using workers to perform duties outside their contracts (18 in 2020); sentences included community service and up to three months’ imprisonment. The government allowed employers previously convicted of exploiting foreign domestic workers to continue to hire workers. 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 authorities did not enforce this rule, agencies often charged much higher fees and confiscated workers’ passports and/or contracts as collateral, practices that perpetuated debt-based coercion. The government requested employment agencies 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 Employment Agencies Administration (EAA) conducted cursory inspections of some employment agencies. The EAA increased staffing and resources during the reporting period, but previous reports indicated 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; however, the EAA increasingly opened during weekends during the reporting period. To facilitate the ability of foreign domestic workers to make inquiries and complaints, the Labor Department (LD) operated an online portal as well as a 24-hour hotline with interpretation available in seven languages. In 2021, LD prosecuted five agencies for overcharging workers, operating without a license, or other violations but did not report the number convicted (11 agencies prosecuted in 2020). LD cited non-compliance of the code of practice in decisions to revoke or reject the renewal of licenses of seven employment agencies in 2021 (seven in 2020). A study found that while the EAA increased investigations of employment agencies, the number of prosecutions for non-compliance of the code of practice remained low. In addition, previous reports indicated some employment agencies reportedly continued to operate—and unlawfully retain workers’ passports with impunity—after losing their licenses, sometimes operating while their conviction was under appeal or reopening under different names. Despite having the legal discretion to revoke agency licenses administratively, observers reported the EAA over-relied on criminal convictions of agencies to do so. In addition, fines and other penalties given to employment agencies exploiting foreign domestic workers were not significant enough to act as a deterrent. 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 PRC included Macau in its accession to the 2000 UN TIP Protocol in 2010, it stated the Protocol “shall not apply” to Hong Kong.

As reported over the past five years, human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims in Hong Kong, and traffickers exploit victims from Hong Kong abroad. Victims include citizens from mainland PRC, Indonesia, Kenya, the Philippines, Thailand, Uganda, and other Southeast Asian countries, as well as countries in South Asia, Africa, and South America. Traffickers exploit foreign women, including from Eastern Europe, Africa, and Southeast Asia in sex trafficking. There were reports that some women in Hong Kong—often with the assistance of their families—deceive Indian and Pakistani men into arranged marriages that involve domestic servitude, bonded labor in construction and other physically demanding industries, and other forms of abuse via exploitative contracts. Traffickers exploit migrant workers in shipping, construction, electronic recycling facilities, nursing homes, and private homes. Drug trafficking syndicates coerced foreign women, including through the use of physical violence, to carry drugs into Hong Kong.

Traffickers recruit victims from the Philippines, South America, and mainland PRC using false promises of lucrative employment and force them into commercial sex. Pre-pandemic, some foreign victims entered Hong Kong on two-week tourist visas, as part of a circuit of major cities in the region used by traffickers, including Bangkok and Taipei, and were coerced into commercial sex through debt-based coercion. Following increased travel restrictions related to the pandemic, there were fewer foreign individuals in commercial sex in Hong Kong throughout 2020 and 2021, including trafficking victims. However, NGOs reported increasing occurrences of online solicitation of commercial sex acts, which reduced their access to individuals in commercial sex and may have increased individuals’ vulnerability to coercive tactics. Traffickers use coercive methods, such as threats of reporting victims to police or immigration authorities, withholding of identification documents, and blackmailing victims with threats of online distribution of photographs to coerce them to engage in online commercial sex acts. Brothel operators and others exploit Hong Kong children in sex trafficking. “Compensated dating” also continues to facilitate commercial sexual exploitation of Hong Kong children and adults, making them vulnerable to trafficking. Traffickers have exploited victims from Hong Kong in North America in commercial sex.

Approximately 400,000 foreign domestic workers, primarily from Indonesia and the Philippines, work in Hong Kong. Some foreign domestic workers become victims of debt bondage in the private homes in which they are employed. A 2018 NGO task force survey of migrant workers found that one-third of Indonesian workers in Hong Kong were asked to sign debt agreements as conditions of their employment. In addition, 56 percent of surveyed workers reported having to pay illegal recruitment fees, and 24 percent had their personal documents withheld by employment agencies or employers. Recent estimates suggest that as many as one in six foreign domestic workers are victims of labor exploitation in Hong Kong. Some operators of employment agencies subject victims to labor trafficking through debt-based coercion by charging workers job placement fees above legal limits and sometimes withholding their identity documents. The accumulated debts sometimes amount to a significant portion of a worker’s first-year salary, and unscrupulous agencies sometimes compel workers to take loans from money lenders to pay excessive fees. However, the reduced availability of foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong as a result of the pandemic resulted in some employment agencies reducing placement and other fees charged to workers. Some employers, money lenders, and employment agencies illegally withhold passports, employment contracts, or other possessions until the debt is paid. Some workers are required to work up to 17 hours per day; experience verbal, sexual, or physical abuse in the home; live in inadequate conditions; and/or are not granted a legally-required weekly day off. Throughout the pandemic, many workers faced increased workloads and daily work hours, and some employers denied workers the ability to take their mandated day off. In addition, many workers incurred additional debt from employment agencies for expenses related to quarantine requirements, further increasing their risk of experiencing debt-based coercion. Observers also reported brothels, bars, and clubs increasingly recruited foreign domestic workers to engage in commercial sex acts, sometimes through fraudulent recruitment methods. Some foreign domestic workers sign contracts to work in Hong Kong, but upon arrival, traffickers coerce or lure them to work in mainland PRC, the Middle East, or Russia. As demand for foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong increased, NGOs reported workers from countries other than Indonesia and the Philippines were increasingly vulnerable to exploitation. Some employment agencies reportedly hired foreign domestic workers under false pretenses and forced them into commercial sex.

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future