Hong Kong: Asia’s Modern Slavery Hub

It’s not the first place that comes to mind when discussing slavery in Asia, but recent reports have found that Hong Kong, despite its wealth and prosperity, has a hidden issue with modern slaves, particularly in the form of forced labour. According to a survey by the Walk Free Foundation, Hong Kong has one of the highest proportions of enslaved people across the region, while simultaneously being consistently ranked in the top 10 cities in the world in terms of GDP. Forced labour has been identified as the primary form of slavery and, due to its subtle nature, is unusually hard to monitor and estimate.

The Global Slavery Index’s 2016 report has identified 45.8 million people across the globe that are currently enslaved, many, like those in Hong Kong, are subject to unique and novel forms of vague interpretations of the term.

Hong Kong’s prevailing wealth has been the magnet for regional migrants desperately searching for employment, in particular, those from the Philippines and Indonesia. Often labelled as ‘domestic helpers’ locally, these individuals are part of an ostracized group in society that is neglected both socially and legally.

In Hong Kong alone there are an estimated 30 000 of these ‘helpers’ who are enslaved, with the common perception that in reality, those figures are indeed considerably higher. In a sample of 1000 migrant workers, 17% were found to be restricted by forced labour, which equated to 55 000 in proportion to the total population of working migrants in Hong Kong. The Walk Free report defined slavery as “situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, abuse of power or deception, with treatment akin to a farm animal.”

Forced labour, as a form of ‘modern’ slavery, is an ambiguous interpretation of this definition, with slaves often mixed among legitimate employers and employees. Their conditions are harsh, involving excessive hours, little or no pay, and usually accompany some form of threat of violence, deportation or termination of employment. Migrant workers are particularly vulnerable, as in most cases work is guaranteed to them by an agency who may take away their passports upon arrival in Hong Kong.

In response to the issue, Hong Kong has been ranked as worse than mainland China and has been ridiculed by Western governments and NGO’s for its inability to provide protections through legislation. The Washington Post reported that in findings released by the United States in July, Hong Kong was singled out as being on par with Ethiopia and Iraq in regards to slavery, in terms of both quantification and legislative responses to the issue. What is more troubling, however, is the Hong Kong government’s denial and rejection of these findings, claiming their credibility as external assessors without HK government approval is questionable.

There exists a clear issue in Hong Kong surrounding a conversely very opaque and often overlooked problem. Forced labour, and other popular forms of modern slavery in HK including sex slavery, are socially debated and legislatively protected to a much lesser extent than obvious, traditional interpretations of the term. Currently, the campaign for their freedom and protection is being spearheaded by Western agencies and English speaking residents of Hong Kong. There are very little advocacy and awareness movements at the local level, with the concept of forced labour often blurred between the illegal and the legitimate.

John McMahon