Hong Kong has world’s highest percentage of women in jail population: law stacked against migrant workers

Hong Kong law is stacked against domestic helpers while we have the world’s highest percentage of females in the prison population, campaigner Melville Boase said. The Correctional Services Department refuses to say how many of the women in jail are domestic helpers.

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Melville Boase, the people’s lawyer and friend to helpers

Melville is co-founder of the law firm Boase Cohen & Collins as well as  treasurer of the Mission for Migrant Workers based at St. John’s Cathedral. He was speaking at a conference organised by the EU Office in Hong Kong.

Strict working conditions, medical problems, debt bondage and lack of access to justice mean the law discriminates against migrant workers,  Melville said. SAI KUNG BUZZ has quoted the head of Christian Action, Cheung Ang Siew Mei, saying the law effectively forces a percentage of helpers into prostitution because there is no other way they can get themselves out of financial difficulty.

“Last year 967 foreign domestic helpers were prosecuted, but only 63 employers,” Melville said. “Prosecution usually means three to six  months’ imprisonment.”

Citing one example among countless cases, Melville said, “A helper wrote to the Immigration Department after six months saying she was also being required to work at her employer’s business. Immigration informed the employer and she was dismissed immediately. Because of the two-week rule, which states the helper must leave Hong Kong in that period on termination for whatever reason, she had to apply for a visitor’s visa.  Immigration took her passport and issued her a ‘white card’ so she could not leave Hong Kong. She had to report monthly to Immigration. Nine months later, she was prosecuted, convicted, deported and told she cannot come back to Hong Kong.”

Hong Kong needs an anti-human trafficking law because independent reports have identified the territory as a source and transit point for a vile trade in human beings, Melville said. The Government has dismissed the need for such a law because the problem is “rare”.

Melville was addressing an audience of diplomats, NGOs and academics at the EU Office-arranged event held at the Club Lusitano. Christian Action’s Siew Mei, who operates hostels and advisory services for migrant workers, said it is not so much racism on the part of government officials, but discrimination against those who are powerless.

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