Trafficking in persons is a heinous crime that has never been tolerated in Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s long and well-established legal framework, stringent enforcement action by our professional and highly efficient law enforcement agencies, a fiercely independent judicial system with eminent foreign judges from other common law jurisdictions invited to sit on our Court of Final Appeal as a regular feature since 1997, respect for the rule of law in society, as well as a clean and reliable government have placed us on a solid footing to combat trafficking in persons. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government (HKSARG) has always attached great importance to the fight against trafficking in persons crimes, responding to this international issue through targeted and multi-pronged measures on areas including victim identification, law enforcement, prosecution, victim protection, enhancement in staff training and forming partnership with local and overseas stakeholders. As acts of criminals continue to evolve, we also keep our anti-trafficking in persons efforts under continuous review and updating from time to time to keep abreast of changes.
Although trafficking in persons is neither widespread nor prevalent in Hong Kong, it has been clear to us that combating trafficking in persons requires the concerted efforts of various bureaus and departments of different disciplines. It cannot be tackled by any single party or from any single perspective. To underscore our commitment and to ensure high-level policy steer to achieve the best results, a high-level internal steering committee, led personally by the Chief Secretary for Administration and comprising all the relevant policy secretaries and department heads, was set up last month. Its remit is to map out and take forward an overarching strategy and heighten public awareness of trafficking in persons. Shortly after its establishment, the committee wasted no time and promulgated a comprehensive Action Plan to Tackle Trafficking in Persons & Enhance Protection of Foreign Domestic Helpers to step up our anti-trafficking in persons measures and safeguard the labour rights and benefits of foreign domestic helpers.
With a population of nearly 380,000 and steadily growing, foreign domestic helpers account for about 9% of our total workforce. We fully recognise their sterling contribution. They assist our families in household chores and taking care of our elderly and children, thereby unleashing the potential of the local labour force, especially women. In return, they enjoy and deserve comprehensive and equal protection under our laws, on a par with local workers – not only because it is in our interest to do so, but it is the right thing to do. Indeed, Hong Kong is one of the best, if not the best, jurisdictions in the world when it comes to labour protection for foreign domestic workers. With the implementation of the new action plan, I have confidence that Hong Kong will be an even safer and more attractive place of work for foreign domestic helpers.
Whilst this is not the right occasion for me to walk through the plan page by page, I consider it important to highlight at least some of the salient features in order to clear the air, put the record straight and demonstrate that Hong Kong is by no means a centre for human trafficking, and that we do offer full and effective protection for our foreign domestic helpers.
Put simply, our multi-faceted action plan comprises several key building blocks covering victim identification, protection and support, investigation, enforcement, prosecution and prevention as well as partnership with stakeholders. Building on the useful experience so far, we will further extend the victim screening mechanism to all 24 police districts in Hong Kong. We will also extend such mechanism to the Labour Department in the next phase to ensure that foreign domestic helpers falling victim to abuse and exploitation could be identified as early as possible. As regards increasing support for foreign domestic helpers, not only will we set up a dedicated hotline with interpretation services, we will also have dedicated teams in relevant departments to ensure high efficiency in investigation, law enforcement and prosecution against trafficking in persons crimes and malpractices of employment agencies, and to facilitate close inter-departmental co-operation. As trafficking in persons is often a cross-border issue, we will step up co-operation with the home countries of our foreign domestic helpers. We will promote high-level government-to-government dialogues to keep abreast of the latest developments and discuss issues of mutual interest, while drumming up local publicity on the lawful rights of foreign domestic helpers and various protective measures available in Hong Kong. The promulgation of the action plan thus marked a significant milestone in our efforts to tackle trafficking in persons. We look forward to joining hands with all stakeholders and the consuls general in Hong Kong in realising our goal.
There is, however, one lingering myth which I must take this opportunity to dispel. Specifically, the view has been held in some quarters that there is no law in Hong Kong to penalise culprits of trafficking in persons crimes. Let me stress that there is nothing further from the truth. The fact of the matter is that our regime has provided an adequate and solid legal framework to effectively combat trafficking in persons crimes. Although we have not put all the laws that deal with trafficking in persons crimes into a single piece of legislation, our laws have already covered the conduct of trafficking in persons, even if you examine our laws through the lens of the Palermo Protocol which does not apply to Hong Kong. Our laws target trafficking in persons crimes from at least six aspects. Let me elaborate.
First, the Crimes Ordinance (Cap 200) prohibits trafficking in persons to or from Hong Kong for the purpose of prostitution; harbouring another person or exercising control or direction over another person for the purpose of that person’s prostitution or that that person shall do unlawful sexual acts with others; and any person from procuring another person to become a prostitute or cause prostitution of that person in Hong Kong or elsewhere. It also prohibits other crimes including rape, procuring another person by threats to do unlawful sexual acts with others and criminal intimidation. Moreover, there are provisions under the Crimes Ordinance that provide extra-territorial effect against certain sexual offences committed against children outside Hong Kong, including related arrangements and advertisements, making them punishable in Hong Kong.
Second, the Human Organ Transplant Ordinance (Cap 465) prohibits commercial dealings in human organs.
Third, the Prevention of Child Pornography Ordinance (Cap 579) prohibits printing, making, producing, reproducing, copying, importing or exporting, publishing and possessing child pornography.
Fourth, the Immigration Ordinance (Cap 115) prohibits arrangement for an unauthorised entrant to Hong Kong, and employing illegal workers.
Fifth, the Employment Ordinance (Cap 57) imposes criminal liability on employers involved in non-payment, under-payment of wages or delay in payment of wages, failure to grant rest days and statutory holidays to employees.
Finally, there are other relevant ordinances which prohibit such crimes as assault, forcible taking or detention of persons with intent to sell him or her, child abduction, deception and blackmail, etc.
The most serious penalty for the above offences is life imprisonment. Also, quite a number of the above offences are offences “relevant to the definitions of organised crime and specified offences” under the Organised & Serious Crimes Ordinance (Cap 455), under which proceedings obtained from organised and serious crimes could be frozen or confiscated in suitable and appropriate cases by court orders.
This multiple-legislation approach has been providing our law enforcement agencies and prosecutors with sufficient powers to investigate and prosecute trafficking in persons cases. In short, whilst we do not have the form or semblance of a single piece of law to tackle human trafficking, we do have the full substance and range of effective penalties and criminal sanctions for this purpose through a host of legislation. I do hope that my explanation will put to bed the unfair and unwarranted criticisms against Hong Kong.
Let me also emphasise that the HKSARG does not shy away from reviewing our legislation when the situation warrants. We never sit on our hands. And we always adopt a no-nonsense attitude. A recent shining example is the Employment (Amendment) Ordinance 2018 that came into effect on February 9 this year. The maximum penalties for the offences of overcharging of commission from job-seekers, including foreign domestic helpers, and unlicensed operation by employment agencies, have been increased by seven times from a fine of $50,000 to $350,000 plus imprisonment for three years. The statutory time limit for prosecuting these two offences has also been extended from six months to 12 months. The scope of the overcharging offence has been expanded to cover, in addition to the licensee, the management and employees of employment agencies. These measures have drastically increased the deterrent effect and provided better protection for all foreign domestic helpers.
Laws are of no use unless they are properly enforced. We rely on the joint efforts of various government departments which may directly come across victims and witnesses in their day-to-day operation, to tackle the crimes relating to trafficking in persons. Step by step, we have built a solid foundation in this regard. A few major milestones are worth mentioning when we are about to embark on implementing the action plan.
First, an inter-departmental trafficking in persons working group was established in 2010 to enhance the enforcement strategy against trafficking in persons. The working group is chaired by the Security Bureau and comprises members from the law enforcement agencies, the Department of Justice, the Labour Department and the Social Welfare Department. In 2016, the working group issued a Guideline on Inter-departmental Cooperation for the Handling of Suspected Cases of Trafficking in Persons for relevant departments.
Second, the Department of Justice in 2013 incorporated a new paragraph entitled “Human Exploitation Cases” into the Prosecution Code to highlight the identification of trafficking in persons cases and broad principles on their handling, having regard to applicable international standards and practices. Last year, a new chapter on “Human Exploitation” was added to the Prosecution Manual to provide further guidance to prosecutors on trafficking in persons issues.
Third, the first trafficking in persons victim screening mechanism was introduced in 2015 by the Immigration Department and then gradually extended to the Police and the Customs & Excise Department.
More recently, in March 2018, we set up the high-level internal steering committee led by the Chief Secretary and promulgated a comprehensive action plan.
Further training programmes and workshops have been regularly provided to the law enforcement agencies and prosecution since 2016 to update them on knowledge and skills involved in trafficking in persons cases. All these speak volumes about the fact that we are making all-out efforts in combatting trafficking in persons activities and that we really mean business. We will continue to leave no stone unturned in implementing the various measures under the Action Plan to Tackle Trafficking in Persons & Enhance Protection of Foreign Domestic Helpers. We will also review its implementation from time to time and identify further initiatives as and when necessary.
Close co-operation with local civil society and international counterparts is critical to winning the battle. I much look forward to joining hands with all stakeholders to achieve the best results. On this positive note, I wish the conference today a huge success and a most stimulating and fruitful exchange to come.
Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung gave these remarks at the International Conference on Combatting Human Trafficking 2018 on April 27.