Sex Work and Human Trafficking in Hong Kong
The Growing Trend of Migration among Sex Workers
Migration is part and parcel of the sex workers community, but we see the movement of sex workers around Asia Pacific Region is getting much more active than before, with Hong Kong being a migration hub. It is because growing numbers of women are entering into the sex industry for better income due to the recent economic tsunami. On one side, this leads to intense competition among sex workers. While on the other side, when the government sees the sex industry is growing by leaps and bounds, fierce police raids and crackdown are then carried out to clear up the local sex industry so to maintain the status quos.
Tense competition and frequent crackdown in the sex industry finally push many sex workers take up the choice of migration (either legal or illegal) and fly oversea to search for a better working environment. Many local Hong Kong sex workers who are able to pay more capital, those rich and more developed countries like Japan, Europe, England, Canada and Australia will be their popular destinations. And Hong Kong it self is also a very hot spot for the sex workers who are coming from Mainland China, Mongolia, Philippine, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. As Hong Kong is a cheaper and easier destination (compare to Europe or Australia) for the sex workers to visit and earn a living.
Sex Work and the Risk of Human Trafficking
Regardless of the destination, many sex workers fall easily into the trap of exploitation and abusive working environment and the reason behind is largely related to how sex work is treated.
Trafficking tends to occur in industries where labor violations are tense and protections are limited. The sex industry has long been the target of trafficker because sex work is not accepted as an occupation but crime, the rights and properties of sex workers are out of the protection of any labor law.
The problem goes deeper as more and more countries try to clear up their local sex industry (as we have mentioned above), large numbers of sex workers are forced to go overseas to search for a better living. Due to sex workers’ “non-labor” identity, no legitimate channel of migration for employment is available for them. And the worst of all is, unlike any other occupation which you can get tons of information by simply search on the internet, sex workers are blocked from their job information because the “crime” nature of sex work makes it so sensitive for anyone to share, spread or to discussion openly about the information related to this industry.
Sex workers have no choice but to rely on third parties (usually their relatives, neighbors or “sisters” who have experience of working overseas) to help them out of the countries. However, some “sisters” do cheat and exploit the girls by obtaining very high introduction fee and exaggerate the “ideal” working conditions in the destination countries.
The most common case happened in Hong Kong is, many girls are come from poor farming village (commonly from Mainland China), their neighbors or “sister” always make use of their low education level and the lack of information in the village, then claim that they can earn very high salary if work as a sex worker in Hong Kong (20 thousand dollars per month, sometimes more!). Many girls believe in this glossy picture but turn out they can only have $100 dollars per client without condom and need to live in the fear of police crackdown everyday. But many of them have no choice but continue to work because they fall into huge debt of their middle-man fee.
Due to the situation mentioned above, it is not difficult to understand why even if people choose to go oversea to engage in sex work, abusive working environment and trafficking can still exist.
The Government Attitude
The major problem of Hong Kong’s current anti-trafficking policy is, we only have the laws for the prosecution of the human trafficking offense, but the government does not have any specific legislation to provide protection or special assistance to the trafficked persons.
That means, whenever a human trafficking case is reported or discovered by the authority, the police do not have any obligation to identify for any trafficked person during their operation. And what make things worse is, not only the trafficker but the trafficked persons themselves will be penalized for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of their being trafficked.
A very recent case that happened in September, a total of nine Filipino women were caught during the undercover operation by the police in a private night club located in Wan Chai. Four women were arrested on suspicion of trafficking people to Hong Kong for prostitution and managing a vice establishment. However, the remaining five women, who had originally come to the city with visas to work as domestic workers but being trafficked and finally become a sex worker in Hong Kong, were all arrested for breaching their conditions of stay (It is an offence for any tourist visa holder from aboard to work in Hong Kong), without being identified as trafficked person or given any aids. We even heard cases that when some trafficked sex workers tried to explain their situation to the police, the law enforcers just ignore them because they think the girls are just telling lies to avoid being accused.
The mentality behind this “prosecution” centered anti-trafficking approach is, the Hong Kong authority believes that no human trafficking, no forced labor or exploitation are actually happened in Hong Kong. Instead, Hong Kong ONLY has a problem of people coming to here to practice vice activities and take up illegal employment for making quick money. The government does not care about whether the sex workers are trafficked to the city and do not concern about whether they are forced or suffering from abusive working condition. The authority just want to arrest all foreigners who come to Hong Kong to engage in the sex industry, put them in jail and quickly throw them back home.
Anti-trafficking in Hong Kong is only another excuse for the government to have more crackdowns on the sex industry and click all “unwanted” people out of Hong Kong. Anti-trafficking is never something that aim at searching and supporting the people who are suffering from exploitative situation.
The Attitude of NGOs
Under the above circumstances, most of the trafficked persons feel reluctant to seek help from the authority as the only thing they can get will probably be imprisonment. However, the government is not the only one to have problematic policy towards trafficked persons. Some service providers fail to keep a non-judgmental attitude towards sex workers and refuse to provide assistance to the trafficked person simply because the girl voluntarily came to Hong Kong and work in the sex industry.
We met a Mongolian girl who have been trafficked to Hong Kong by her aunt. Originally two of them took a travel trip together to the city and her aunt suggested that she could earn a lot if she tried to be a sex worker there. When they arrived, the Mongolian girl was forced by her aunt to be a sex worker in order to return all the travel expenses which paid by her aunt.
All the income earned by the Mongolian girl was kept by her aunt and there was no way for the girl to get any money to buy a home-return air ticket. We tried to contact a very renowned NGO in Hong Kong which specialized in dealing with human trafficking case. However, the feedback was negative. The organization refused to provide any support because the girl is voluntarily came to Hong Kong and work in the sex industry.
Many service providers fail to understand that because of the “nature” of sex work (not recognized as a job but crime), even if people choose to go oversea to engage in sex work, abusive working environment and trafficking can still exist. And very often, the trafficked person only realizes themselves as a “victim” in the very moment that they are put in the oppressive condition. The girls might feel so happy when they are flying oversea with the trafficker because they believe a new job and a new life is waiting for her.
Simply speaking, no matter the girl is voluntarily or not to go oversea and engage in sex work, this should not be the reason to affect their access to assistance and support. The government or NGOs should base on the situation and needs of the trafficked persons, and provide them with adequate support.