HONG KONG - Hong Kong is failing to protect victims of human trafficking for forced labour, a report said Monday, calling for new legislation to prevent "modern-day slavery" in a city which relies heavily on migrant workers.
The report comes at a time of growing anger over the abuse of foreign domestic helpers in the southern Chinese city, and a day before the trial of a Hong Kong employer accused of torturing her Indonesian maid is set to resume.
"Current legislation merely prohibits human trafficking 'for the purpose of prostitution', but not for the purpose of forced labour or other forms of trafficking," said the joint report by Justice Centre Hong Kong and Liberty Asia.
New legislation expanding the definition of trafficking would help in tackling forced labour abuse by perpetrators including placement agencies, loan companies and employers, it said.
"Recent allegations of domestic helper abuse in Hong Kong bear many of the characteristics of forced labour," said report co-author Victoria Wisniewski Otero, adding that a comprehensive anti-trafficking law could help protect the city's maids.
Hong Kong is home to nearly 300,000 domestic helpers, mainly from Indonesia and the Philippines, and criticism from rights groups over their treatment is growing.
In January, 44-year-old housewife Law Wan-tung was charged with assault relating to her treatment of her maid Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, who was reportedly left unable to walk following eight months of abuse. The employer was also charged with abusing two previous Indonesian maids.
Sulistyaningsih had been admitted to an Indonesian hospital in critical condition after returning home.
The incident triggered anger from thousands of domestic helpers who took to the streets of Hong Kong to demand justice.
The problem of forced labour is only deepening as Hong Kong widens its search for cheap sources of labour, according to the report.
"The main reason for trafficking is simple: Hong Kong has a high demand for cheap labour and there is a proximate abundance of supply from neighbouring countries in the Asia-Pacific region," it said.
In February, Hong Kong received its first official group of maids from Myanmar, as the city tries to plug a shortage of domestic helpers.
Around 200 are expected to arrive in the city over the next three months, but activists have expressed fears that Myanmar women are one of the groups most vulnerable to abuse due to their limited skills in English and Cantonese.
In September, a Hong Kong couple were jailed for savagely beating their Indonesian domestic helper, including burning her with an iron and hitting her with a bicycle chain.
Amnesty International in November condemned the "slavery-like" conditions faced by thousands of Indonesian domestic helpers in Hong Kong and accused authorities of "inexcusable" inaction.