Exposing the cracks: Hong Kong’s landmark case on human trafficking and forced labour

A recent judgment has brought into question Hong Kong’s efforts to combat human trafficking and forced labour. In this post, we summarise what you need to know about the background to the case (ZN v Secretary for Justice), the decision itself, and potential next steps in the effort to eradicate human trafficking and forced labour from Hong Kong. As we’re fast becoming aware, these issues are relevant to more businesses than you might think in Hong Kong.

This post was written by Urszula McCormack, Felicity Ng and Jack Nelson.


ZN (a pseudonym given by the Court to protect his identity), a Pakistani national, was enticed to work as a domestic helper in Hong Kong. Between 2007 and 2010, he worked long hours in the office premises of his employer’s mobile phone business. He was required to reside at the premises. ZN was denied his wages for three years, subsisting on handouts from his employer. ZN was regularly abused, threatened and beaten by his employer – who also kept his travel documents. When his employer eventually allowed him to return to Pakistan, ZN’s employment contract was abruptly terminated, leaving him with no recourse with respect to unpaid wages.

In 2012, ZN re-entered Hong Kong illegally to claim his unpaid wages and to report his employer’s maltreatment. As a result, ZN and his family were allegedly continually harassed and threatened by his employer and their associates in both Hong Kong and Pakistan. ZN sought the assistance of Hong Kong’s Immigration Department, Labour Department and the Hong Kong Police Force on multiple occasions. However, the officers concerned dismissed ZN’s abuse allegations and failed to identify ZN as a potential victim of human trafficking or forced labour.

ZN eventually applied for judicial review, alleging that the Hong Kong Government had failed to protect him as a victim of human trafficking under Article 4 of the Bill of Rights Ordinance (Cap. 383) (“Bill of Rights Ordinance“).

What does Article 4 say?

Article 4 of the Bill of Rights Ordinance prohibits slavery and servitude. Subject to certain exceptions, it contains three key provisions:

“(1) No one shall be held in slavery; slavery and the slave-trade in all their forms shall be prohibited.

(2) No one shall be held in servitude.

(3) (a) No one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour.”

The decision

Justice Zervos found that ZN was, in fact, a victim of human trafficking and that the Hong Kong Government had failed to fulfil its obligations under Article 4 of the Bill of Rights Ordinance.

In particular, Justice Zervos found that the Hong Kong Government had not adequately fulfilled its positive obligations to enact measures to ensure the prohibition of forced labour and human trafficking, stating that ZN:

“was left floundering in a system in which concern for victims of human trafficking for forced labour is mainly a rhetorical manoeuvre”. (our emphasis)

Further, in a scathing criticism of the current regime, he held that:

“if this case is an example of the effectiveness of Hong Kong’s regime in tackling human trafficking and forced labour, then it has failed to achieve even the most basic objectives”. (our emphasis)

Why does this case matter?

This case is a landmark decision, as it is the first to define the nature and extent of the obligations imposed on the Hong Kong Government under Article 4 of the Bill of Rights Ordinance.

Justice Zervos also made a number of findings on the “fundamental failings and difficulties with the regime in place to tackle the prohibited practices under Article 4 of the [Bill of Rights Ordinance] and especially when persons are being trafficked for those purposes”. We outline these findings below:

  • the Palermo Protocol, which establishes international standards for combatting human trafficking, does not apply to Hong Kong by virtue of a reservation entered by the Central People’s Government. Accordingly, there are no statutory definitions on human trafficking, slavery or forced labour as Hong Kong is not a party to any relevant international treaty;
  • the existing patchwork of criminal offences are limited in scope. For instance, Section 129 of the Crimes Ordinance (Cap. 200) penalises human trafficking only for the purpose of prostitution, while there are no laws in Hong Kong addressing trafficking in forced labour; and
  • there is no appropriate legal and administrative framework to readily identify or investigate possible cases of human trafficking or forced labour. Further, there is no appropriate training for Government employees and the Hong Kong Government lacks the operational capacities that are necessary to deal with cases of human trafficking or forced labour.

This reflects our previous observations on the UK Modern Slavery Act in our alert dated 20 January 2016.

What’s next?

This case aligns with the many local and international calls for action over recent years on combating human trafficking and forced labour in Hong Kong, namely:

  • the UN Human Rights Committee in its 2013 report stated that it was “concerned about the persistence of the phenomenon of trafficking in persons in Hong Kong, China and reports that Hong Kong, China is a destination and transit point for men, women and teenage girls from Hong Kong, the mainland China, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia”. The Committee urged that the Palermo Protocol be extended to Hong Kong;
  • the US Department of State in its Trafficking in Persons report downgraded Hong Kong from Tier 2 in 2015 to Tier 2 Watch List in 2016. This suggests a significant increase in the absolute number of victims of human trafficking and forced labour; and
  • the Justice Centre Hong Kong pushed for the adoption of comprehensive anti-human trafficking legislation and more robust labour protections against forced labour in its 2014 and 2016 reports.

In response to these reports, the Hong Kong Government made various commitments to gradually improve the protections offered to victims of human trafficking and force labour. But ZN v Secretary for Justice is a timely reminder that more is needed. The cracks in the current regime need to be addressed before similar cases fill the courts.

From a business perspective, we are starting to see a strong uptick in internal compliance focus on hiring practices and supply chain integrity. In addition, many banks now take into account slavery and human trafficking as part of the customer due diligence processes, particularly as more and more reliable information comes online in relation to sectors, jurisdictions and even specific businesses that are involved in, or vulnerable to, slavery and human trafficking.

We expect that developments in this space will gain momentum following this landmark ruling.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

15 − seven =

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.