HONG KONG – As she smiles at customers and makes small talk with regulars in a Hong Kong bar, Kat’s every move is being watched by an older woman, a pimp who answers to the name “Mama-san.”
The 23-year-old from the Philippines has been forced to sell sex for Mama-san and her organized crime network since December, when she was moved to Hong Kong under a recruiter’s promise of a well-paying job and easy working conditions.
A single mother whose own mother is too sick to work, Kat jumped at the chance to earn a high salary. But soon after she arrived in Hong Kong, Mama-san confiscated her passport and sent her to work in the bar alongside other trafficked women.
Clients pay up to 5,000 Hong Kong dollars ($650) to have sex with Kat, but payment goes directly to her pimp. Without any money, she cannot escape or fly home — and besides, her traffickers know where her family lives.
“I’m depressed. The other bar girls are depressed. They have to force themselves to be happy and make jokes,” said Kat, sobbing. “The Chinese bar owner gets angry with me because I look so sad.”
Kat, who declined to give her real name, is one of hundreds of women who are trafficked to Hong Kong from mainland China, Southeast Asia, Europe and South America for forced prostitution in the city’s brothels, bars, spas and pornography industry, activists say.
Many victims do not speak out for fear of being punished by their traffickers, some of them linked to the powerful triad organized crime groups. Others are afraid of being deported or criminalized for possessing the fake papers arranged by their pimps.
“I take a risk every time I go out with a male customer,” said Kat, who also shudders at the parties she is made to attend where cocaine, marijuana and other drugs are used by clients and forced on the girls.
The girls “are great actresses because, like one of them said, ‘I need to show that I am happy and OK even when I am not.’ This, to me, kills a soul,” said “Marcela Santos,” an advocate for trafficking victims who did give her real name, saying it may hurt her work helping survivors with jobs, training and sometimes a flight home.
Last year, the U.S. State Department downgraded Hong Kong in its annual Trafficking in Persons report to its Tier 2 Watch List, just one rank above countries like North Korea.
The report criticized Hong Kong for not doing more to identify victims of sex and labor trafficking among vulnerable groups such as foreign migrants, domestic workers and children.
In 2016, the police identified a total of 16 foreign women forced into prostitution.
Hong Kong’s Security Bureau, in charge of law and order as well as immigration, said police have regular training on identifying victims of human trafficking.
But recognizing a need for more training, the Immigration Department and Hong Kong Police Force have introduced new and revised procedures for identifying potential trafficking victims, including a checklist for danger signs.
The list of possible trafficking victims has also been expanded to sex workers, illegal workers and illegal immigrants.
“It’s often challenging for law enforcement personnel and service providers to identify potential victims. In most situations, victims cannot escape from the traffickers,” said Nurul Qoiriah, head of the Sub-Office of the U.N. International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Hong Kong.
Sandy Wong, chairwoman of the Anti-Human Trafficking Committee of the Hong Kong Federation of Women Lawyers, said the best way to tackle forced prostitution is to target buyers of sex.
“Despite the police’s commitment and constant efforts in combating vice establishments, many operate in broad daylight and through the cracks in the legal system and evade arrest by police,” she said.
Investigating forced prostitution takes a long time, with many victims unwilling to come forward as witnesses, she said.
“If we don’t stop the source of demand, there will always be someone who will provide the supply by hook or by crook,” Wong said, adding that Hong Kong should consider adopting a version of Sweden’s 1999 law criminalizing the purchase of sex.
Some victims blame police corruption for inaction over human trafficking in Hong Kong.
One of the Philippine women whom Santos helped to rescue, Jean, said she was brought to Hong Kong on a two-month tourist visa in 2014 by an organized crime group in the Philippines with triad links.
Her traffickers then used fraud to organize a two-year domestic helper visa for her as part of an arrangement with a bar co-owned by a police officer, where she was immediately put to work.
“Of course it’s like torture to pay back the debt. The agent doesn’t care. They don’t know how clients treat you badly,” she said by telephone from Manila, where she now lives. “Life was hell. The most traumatic thing is you have to do a lot of drugs. Clients ask you to buy drugs like cocaine, ice, marijuana. … (They) make you take it with them.”
She said the pimps always knew when the police planned to come to the bar to check the women’s papers because their passports would be returned to them temporarily.
A Hong Kong police spokesman said the police force is committed to clamping down on triad activity and has adopted a policy of zero tolerance of police corruption.
The spokesman also said the police force has provided “full assistance” to the Hong Kong Independent Commission Against Corruption during investigations into corruption complaints involving police officers.
Now receiving help for her drug addiction, Jean said her 4-year-old daughter keeps her going.
Kat is not so lucky.
After hearing that her brother was in critical condition after an accident in the Philippines, she begged Mama-san to allow her to fly home.
But the woman refused.
“I don’t want to do this,” Kat said. “I want to get training and to apply for a job in a restaurant. I don’t want to come back to Hong Kong.”