Bopha*is a 20-year-old Cambodian who was trafficked to Hong Kong and exploited over a period of 3 months, in an ordeal which robbed her of her youthful vitality and rendered her hugely frustrated, she told me when we met. When she recalled her employment, she told me of the long hours and perpetual exhaustion that she felt every single day of the three months.
Bopha comes from a family of six in a remote village in Cambodia. She had been helping her family with farming, but whenher father became very sick and could no longer work, her family’s situation became increasingly difficult.
Then, a friend told her about an opportunity to work in Hong Kong. It turned out that Hong Kong relaxed visa requirements for Cambodian domestic workers in March 2017. Earning a decent living in Cambodia is extremely difficult, so Bopha went to an employment agency to inquire about overseas opportunities.
The agency arranged a position in Hong Kong for her and told her to sign a contract that she could barely understand. The agency also asked her pay a large fee prior to the trip, more than her family could afford. In the end, they sold the only valuable assets they had – two cows.
In December 2017, the first group of domestic workers from Cambodia arrived in Hong Kong. Among them was Bopha, and she was excited about the potential to support her family, and to be one of the first people she knew to have the opportunity to work in Hong Kong. “I heard that it was a rich city and would be a good place to earn good money,” Bopha told me helplessly.
When she arrived in Hong Kong, the agent picked her up from the airport and immediately took away her passport and employment contract. “For safety reasons” was the reply, when Bopha questioned her.
Bopha worked about 18 hours per day. When the day ended, she went to bed exhausted, not in her own room, but on a mattress in the kitchen. The family would shout at her and even hit her, and she could not understand what they were saying in Chinese. The family showed little regard for her feelings when making demands of her. The elderly lady in the family would sometimes wake her up at midnight and ask her to make food. What’s more, her phone was confiscated and she was unable to make contact with her family for the duration of her employment.
Though she had come to Hong Kong in an effort to support her family back home, her employers only paid her HK$900, when the minimum wage for Foreign Domestic Workers was $4,410. She could only leave the house if she was accompanying the old lady on a walk. She was hundreds of miles from home, unable to communicate due to language barriers, unable to contact her friends and family, and thus she had she no clear way of finding help. For three months she endured this exploitation, until she began to get sick.
When Bopha told her employers about her illness, they were scared that she had a transmittable disease and immediately terminated her contract and sent her back to Cambodia.
She remained unaware of her workers’ rights until she spoke with a friend who had also worked overseas. She was advised to get assistance from a non-governmental organisation in Cambodia.
*All names and identifying information have been changed to protect the identity of the victims.
Indicators of trafficking for labour exploitation:
- Deceptive recruitment – employment agent did not explain nature of work and employment condition
- Exploitation – poor living environment; employer owed wages; excessive working hours
- Coercion at destination – agent confiscated passport; employer confined her to the home and limited her movement; employer isolated her by confiscating her phone
- Abuse of vulnerability – dependency on exploiters due to economic and family reasons; language barriers; lack of knowledge of Hong Kong law