A Hong Kong judge ruled Friday the police had “prematurely curtailed” their investigation of a Philippine domestic worker being exploited by her employer, a biting assessment of the city’s failure to protect victims of human trafficking.

The landmark ruling marks a rare victory for migrant worker activists, who have long argued that the city’s 340,000 domestic workers — mostly women from the Philippines and Indonesia — are acutely vulnerable to various forms of abuse and exploitation. 

High Court. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Last year, Brian Apthorp, a British permanent resident, was convicted of committing indecent assault against his domestic helper — referred to in legal documents as “CB”. 

After her win in court, she mounted another legal challenge in July 2021 — this time against the government for failing to properly investigate her more serious accusations of trafficking and forced labour. 

High Court judge Russell Coleman on Friday ruled in CB’s favour, saying that authorities had “prematurely curtailed” their investigation into her case.

He also called it “manifestly irrational and unsound” for the police to dismiss the possibility of forced labour. 

“The police’s investigation did not set (out) to discover a case of forced labour, but instead targeted a case of indecent assault because that was the only charge which could have been brought,” he said. 

Currently Hong Kong uses a patchwork of criminal offences to target trafficking and forced labour, without tackling it under a single piece of legislation — which Coleman said does not adequately protect victims of forced labour and called for more specific laws.

Charging Apthorp with indecent assault — instead of the more serious charges of trafficking and forced labour — meant the prison sentences are capped at shorter lengths.

File photo: Tom Grundy.

CB’s case also involved relatively senior law enforcement officers, which highlighted a “systemic problem”, the judge said, calling abuse against domestic workers a “disturbing but notorious fact” in Hong Kong.

He ordered for an investigation into her case to be reopened. 

A Department of Justice spokesman said they will study the judgement and “consider the way forward”. 

CB said she was “very happy” that the court recognised the need to revise the laws, and called on the government to take immediate steps to do so.

“I hope the police will be more aware of the everyday exploitation of helpers… In my case, there were too many lapses and they did not see the wider picture,” CB said in a statement via her lawyers. 

Since 2020, the US State Department have said Hong Kong was not doing enough to tackle human trafficking, keeping it on its “Tier Two Watchlist” ranking alongside countries such as Belarus, Liberia and Thailand. 

The Hong Kong government has called the report “biased and unreasonable”.

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