Business models in the sex industry has continually evolved, yet clandestinity of the the trade has remained ever-constant. More than a decade ago, the phenomenon of part-time girlfriends (PTGF) emerged with the rise of social media. While women and girls traded their company for money, they also face multiple risks. Between 2019-2020, STOP (Stop Trafficking Of People), an initiative of the local non-profit organization, Branches Of Hope conducted interviews with PTGFs and relevant stakeholders, to gain an inside view on the industry. It was observed that social support for young sex workers was generally lacking. Not only that, workers frequently encountered immense setbacks in seeking police help. Henceforth, STOP has actively joined forces with partner organizations in recent years to push for local legislation on combating human trafficking, and tougher sanctions for sex exploiters.
Snakes in the grass of Hong Kong’s sex industry: Hostile response from officers
Human trafficking and exploitation in the sex industry may appear to be two separate issues, yet both commonly involve the use of control tactics, such as threat, extortion, and deception to manipulate others. “Not all young sex workers are exploited. However, as existing policies are inadequate to provide protection, engagement in the line of work exposes workers to exploitation risks.” explained Michelle Wong, Program Manager of STOP. Despite sex workers’ voluntary participation in the sex industry, they may still face varying degrees of threats and exploitation during the transaction process, which undermines their bodily autonomy. Wong also indicated that while PTGFs may undertake in intimate acts with clients, not all of them would provide sexual services. Accordingly, STOP’s research interviews targeted only PTGFs who engages in transactional sex.
Between 2019-2020, through referrals from Teen’s Key, a local charity that provides support to PTGFs, STOP and international human rights research consultancy firm, Rights Exposure, conducted in-depth interviews with seven young sex workers. Results showed that all interviewees had experienced different degrees of exploitation, including clients’ refusal or evasion of payment; stealthing, which disregards the worker’s sexual consent, and heightens their health risks of unintended pregnancies as well as sexually transmitted diseases; as well as voyeurism and sextortion. With regards to relatively less severe forms of exploitation, such as payment evasion, some interviewees reflected that they would rather stay silent and not seek help, due to the cumbersomeness of filing police reports and the unlikeliness of recovering the money successfully. Only in the occurrences of grave criminal offences, like rape, would workers consider reporting to the police.
Moreover, even if victims were willing to file a report, the stigmatizing attitude and hostility towards sex workers of some officers often discourage victims from pursuing justice. One of the interviewees who filed a report for nonconsensual dissemination of private sexual images, recalled feeling looked down upon throughout the process of statement-taking, due to the disdainful attitude and language of the male officer-in-charge. “He seemed to believe that because of my job as a sex worker, I deserved to be mistreated,” she added. In another case, the victim reportedly came forward to report criminal intimidation but received no response nor follow-up from the police, and was not even notified when her case was closed.
Veronica Siu, Assistant Program Officer of STOP, urges law enforcement agencies to improve training for frontline officers, and integrate into practice trauma-informed approaches when responding to potential cases of exploitation, so to avoid retraumatization.
Lack of community support
According to Teen’s Key’s 2019 annual report, of the 10,000+ young women and girls screened and assessed for sexual risks, approximately 1,500 cases were identified as high-risk and required follow-up care, which involved incidences of threats of violence, voyeurism and sextortion, cyberbullying, sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancies. Despite the staggering number, availability of relevant social support services is greatly lacking. Across the 14 stakeholders interviewed by STOP, it was learnt that in Hong Kong, there are only two organizations that provide services specifically designed to meet the needs of young sex workers in Hong Kong, namely Teen’s Key and Yang Memorial Methodist Social Service.
Founded 10 years ago, Teen’s Key initially focused its efforts on promoting occupational safety and health to PTGFs. Over the years, they gradually expanded their service scope to also support the personal development of female youths in Hong Kong. As opposed to the norm of street outreach, Teen’s Key’s social workers approach youths through various major social media platforms, and regularly message PTGFs about the types of services that the organization offers, such as free rapid sexual health tests for gonorrhea, syphilis, and AIDS; as well as legal assistance if necessary. “Most times, they tend to just leave us on read, but in times of emergency, they know they can call our 24-hour emergency hotline. We don’t lecture people. Instead, we walk alongside survivors as they decide on their next steps,” said Denise Lam, Social Worker and Outreach Programme Officer of Teen’s Key.
Lag in Sex-Ed: Ignorance to condom use in STD prevention
These high-risk cases accentuate the severe inadequacy and outdatedness of sex education in Hong Kong. Findings from STOP’s interview data revealed that prior to connecting with Teen’s Key, some interviewees never knew that proper condom usage could reduce the risk of STDs.
There is more to sex education than contraceptive knowledge. “Oftentimes during outreach, the questions asked aren’t about how to wear a condom. The girls are interested to know ways to say ‘no’ in relationships, and how to communicate openly and honestly with their partner,” added Rachel Chow, Resource Development Manager of Teen’s Key. Hence, in addition to providing sexual health knowledge, Teen’s Key’s sexuality & consent educational classes also use role-playing activities to discuss common relationship queries.
Inadequate laws to protect sex workers
To more effectively protect young sex workers from exploitation, STOP advocates the enactment of a comprehensive human trafficking law in Hong Kong. Currently, the human trafficking law in Hong Kong solely addresses the crime of forced prostitution, while the government’s launch of the “Action Plan to Tackle Trafficking in Persons and Enhance Protection of Foreign Domestic Helpers in Hong Kong” in 2018, only targets to respond to the labor exploitation of foreign domestic workers. As Wong emphasized, the existing legal framework continues to define human trafficking too narrowly, leading to those who were neither forced into sex work nor an exploited foreign domestic worker, but nonetheless a victim of other forms of human trafficking, to be left out of the justice process.
Based on the present law, even if the perpetrator is successfully prosecuted, the penalty tends not to sufficiently reflect the gravity of their crime. “The criminal consequences for rape is relatively severe, yet for voyeurism and sextortion, they are far less stringent. As for the act of grooming, it might even be the case that it is not punishable – unless unlawful sexual intercourse with a child victim under the age of 13 has occurred – which has no deterrent effect.” Wong believes that criminalizing all forms of human trafficking would allow exploited sex workers to better understand their own situation and report for police help without help when in need. The law could also deliver a message to the public that perpetrators require more severe punishment.
性工作者的經營模式一直在改變，不變的是其隱藏性。十年多前隨社交媒體流行，兼職女友（PTGF）出現，女生以陪伴賺錢，同時面對各種威脅。本地慈善機構希望枝子的項目之一「停止人口販運」（Stop Trafficking of People; STOP）於2019-2020年期間，與共21位持分者進行訪問了解業內近況（包括PTGF及相關支援組織），發現年輕性工作者不但缺乏社會支援，報警求助亦困難重重。於是STOP近年積極聯繫友好組織，望推動政府立法，令性剝削施害者得到嚴懲。
STOP於2019-2020期間，委託國際人權顧問公司Rights Exposure，透過支援PTGF的慈善組織 青躍介紹，訪問了7位年輕性工作者，發現受訪者都曾受到不同程度的剝削，例如被客人「食霸王餐」，或被客人強行除套性交，不但違反她們的意願，亦增加意外懷孕及感染性病風險；還有在交易過程中遭偷拍勒索。對於「食霸王餐」這類相對較輕的剝削案件，有受害人認為報案程序繁瑣，不太可能追討款項而選擇啞忍。只有發生強姦等嚴重的刑事案件，受害人才會報警。
Cards Against Trafficking is a set of educational tools aims at engaging the general public in a creative and fun manner and to provide culturally-relevant information so that public opinion in Hong Kong on human trafficking can be changed. It contains 47 cards in English and Chinese that provide both visuals and definitions to describe the wide array of terms used in the field of human trafficking. The vocabulary included in this boxset has been specifically chosen to fit within the context of this city.
If you are interested, you can purchase the cards from our office in Wan Chai. For more details please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
As global citizens, each of us shoulder the duty to ponder, discuss and protect human rights; to give voice to the voiceless; and to care for the wellbeing of the vulnerable. STOP firmly believes that the key to putting a stop to Hong Kong’s “hidden epidemic” of human trafficking, is by listening with humility to the diverse voices in our community, and by encouraging people of all ages and backgrounds to actively engage in discussion about these issues.
In preparation for World Day Against Trafficking in Persons this year, STOP invited a group of our volunteers and Jacqueline (Research and Policy Officer of STOP) to ‘take the stage’ and share with us their thoughts & knowledge about human trafficking through a series of articles and a short film (Cantonese).
Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery are problems embedded in the complex global supply chains that produce the goods we buy and use every day. Many of the products on the List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor are agricultural products, which means that many of them are food. These include corn, sugarcane, coffee, beans, rice, cocoa, fish, tomatoes and so on.
In Africa, an estimated 2 million children work on cocoa farms in Ghana and the Ivory Coast, which produce 60% of the world’s cocoa, the main ingredient in chocolate. According to a Washington Post investigation, boys from Burkina Faso were lured from home with false promises of educational opportunities, taken to work on cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast and controlled by a “gran patron”, which means “big boss”. A farmer who was interviewed said he pays the “gran patron” a little less than $9 per child for a week of work, who would, in turn, pay each of the boys about half of that. That would mean that a boy would receive a salary of less than $4.5 a week, if at all.
According to a lawsuit filed at the US Supreme Court by six former child labourers, who were kidnapped from their native Mali and put to work on cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast, “they were forced to work up to 14 hours a day, given only scraps of food to eat, and were severely beaten or tortured if they tried to escape.” The conditions are hazardous, because boys on the farms, some as young as six, are forced to spray dangerous pesticides and use sharp machetes to clear the forest.
In 2001, eight major chocolate companies, including Hershey, Mars & Nestlé USA, pledged to eradicate child labour by 2005, in an agreement that became known as the Harkin-Engel Protocol. They missed the deadline in 2005, and then again in 2008 and 2010. They then scaled back their promises and set a goal to reduce child labour by 70% by 2020, a deadline they also missed. This failure, according to critics, is due to indecision and insufficient financial commitment. According to the Washington Post investigation, “the industry, which collects an estimated $103 billion in sales annually, has spent more than $150 million over 18 years to address the issue.”
Modern Slavery is also a problem in the coffee industry. Around the world, approximately 26 million people work on coffee plantations every year and may be in conditions of child labour or forced labour in 18 different countries.
For example, forced labour and child labour have been reported in Brazil, which is the world’s largest exporter of coffee, accounting for about one-third of the global market. A Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation over six months uncovered extensive slave labour running largely unchecked in Minas Gerais, a region that produces more than half the coffee beans in Brazil. In 2019, inspectors discovered workers, including children as young as 13, who were undocumented, underpaid and lacking safety equipment as required by law. “The workers had no rights whatsoever,” said Marcelo Campos, the labour inspector who coordinated the raids.
Women and children are highly vulnerable to exploitation on coffee plantations. Women tend to perform lower skilled tasks, work more hours overall, be paid less and experience high rates of sexual assault. Child labour is also a persistent issue. Family-run, smallholder coffee farms produce 60% of the world’s coffee, and almost half of these families live in poverty. When coffee prices fall in this volatile market, families cannot afford to send their children to school and are forced to put them to work on their farms.
The crux of the problem is that corporations currently do not suffer any serious consequences for failing to address the issue of modern slavery in their supply chains. They are unlikely to take meaningful action until there is sufficient incentive. Collectively, consumers have the power to incentivize much-needed change. By encouraging companies to take steps to make their supply chains ethical and sustainable and by rewarding the companies that do so with their purchasing power, consumers make a great difference.
“I can have someone keep me company and get paid. So I thought why not?” Crystal (not her real name) looks back on how she used to view compensated dating when she first joined the PTGF (part-time girlfriend) industry at age 15, unsuspecting of the indelible pains that would later ensue. Another girl, Hedy, felt she had little choice but to make money through sex work, in order to pay off her ex-boyfriend’s debts. Each girl entered the industry for different reasons, but both wondered in retrospect – had they been given a fuller picture of their sexual rights in school, perhaps their journeys would have turned out differently.
The trauma of sexual assault A brush with death
Crystal, now 20, was diagnosed a few years ago with borderline personality disorder, triggered by an event she experienced in her first year of working as a PTGF. At the time, she was approached by a customer who offered to pay a year’s worth of money to sugar-date Crystal, claiming he only requests for hand jobs, and that she would not be forced to do anything against her will. However, when they met at the hotel later, she was raped, and received HK$500 only. The payment was far from the agreed price, but fearful for her personal safety, she did not dare to chase the outstanding amount and left.
A few days later, much to her dismay, Crystal received from the customer a secretly filmed video of herself getting dressed, and was blackmailed to meet with him again, or the video would be sent to her school. “I was terrified. Not knowing whom I could turn to, I ran to a flyover near home. I seriously considered jumping down to end it all,” she said. Fortunately, Crystal changed her mind and sought help. Accompanied by the outreach social worker of Teen’s Key, a local nonprofit organization supporting PTGF, she reported to the police. The man involved was eventually convicted and sentenced to imprisonment on the charges of criminal intimidation and rape of a minor. Yet, the suffering inflicted by his crime continued to affect Crystal: she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome, and at one point, engaged in binge-eating to cope with her emotional instability, which caused her to drop out of school.
Now when Crystal recounts the appalling experience, she speaks about it cheerfully, as if it were someone else’s story, “I don’t wish to burden others. I really want to spread joy, and not be immersed in excessive sorrow for an event in the past.” After the ordeal, in the darkest time of her life, social workers of Teen’s Key stood by her side all along. Later, when she fell in love with someone, and revealed to him after considerable hesitation what she used to do for work, he was not bothered by it, and showed unwavering commitment to their relationship. “He appreciates and accepts me. Perhaps God wants me to be back on my feet too. History cannot be changed, but in happiness, I can put behind the past.” With the support of friends and family, slowly but surely, she began to heal. The incident did not rob Krystal of her dreams – with a diploma in Design, she aspires to create luscious lingerie for plus-size women in the future.
Body for rent to clear debt Longing for the end
Different from Crystal who has already left the PTGF industry, 25 year-old Hedy* remains active in the PTGF industry, but no longer sugar-dates on a full-time basis. She has taken on multiple other part-time jobs to diversify her income stream instead. “Growing old is inevitable. Would I be able to continue working this job when I’m older? Truth be told, I am not the type of girl who wants to be financially dependent on men. I know they are unreliable.”
Hedy shared that she only joined the industry just to pay off debt. “My ex-boyfriend and I used to live together. He took out loans under my name. When we separated, I was in debt for more than HK$100,000.” She crowded her schedule with work. During the peak of Krystal’s PTGF career, she used to take on three sex jobs a week, while filling the remaining gaps in her schedule with sugar-dating bookings, like meeting customers for lunch/dinner, go shopping, or to the movies. She had also been treated roughly by customers before. “Pinching and beating… all kinds of physical abuse … [it was] so painful! Those men didn’t come to deal with their sexual desires. They were venting their rage through inflict violence,” yet, Hedy forced herself to endure. She has now paid off most the debt, and is diligently saving, “it’s most pragmatic to be self-dependent after all,” she said.
Heartened new beginnings Promoting sexual rights education
Though she no longer works as a PTGF, Krystal still occasionally goes online to keep tabs on other PTGFs’ activities on social platforms. She was shocked to discover that “girls as young as 12 and 13 year-olds are already engaging in sugar-dating. The youngest PTGF I have ever came across was just 11 years old. Some of them would post very explicit nudes that clearly show their face!”
While Krystal believes that sex work is work, she thinks that it is due to the inadequacy of school-based sex education, that young girls in the industry often lack awareness to protect themselves, and think too lightly of the sex work as a profession, even oblivious to where the risks and dangers lie. “I was like that back then. Why is it not different for younger girls these days?” Seeing stagnant progress in Hong Kong’s sex education, through Teen’s Key, Krystal began giving school talks to share with students her experience as a former PTGF. With hopes to support other survivors using her personal experience, she wishes to pursue further studies in Sex Education and Law next.
Hedy also gained better knowledge about her sexual rights from using Teen’s Key’s services. “My school took a strong stance against students dating, and bring up sex was out of the question. It was only during Biology class in Form 5 that we were briefly taught how to use contraception… Students, of course, dated in secret. Back in the day, I thought loving someone meant satisfying their every request. I didn’t know how to reject my partner, even when I did not feel comfortable. I only understand now that I always have the option to say “no”, and that I should never have to resign myself to situations that don’t sit well with me.” Hedy thinks that if her school had provided her with proper sexual rights education back then, particularly on ways to build healthy romantic relationships, perhaps the trajectory of events would have been different.
The one, single most important thing that you can do is to RESEARCH BEFORE YOU BUY.
See a lovely shirt and want to buy it? Pull out your phone and look up whether it may be contributing to slavery, before spending your dollars on it.
It can very challenging to know for sure that a product is slavery-free, Here are our Top 7 Tips to make it easy.
Many big and small brands are working hard to root out slavery and other human rights abuses. By supporting brands that make efforts to protect labour rights, we are encouraging more companies to follow suit.
An easy way to find them is to use the Good On You app. This app rates how well a company is doing in three areas, “Planet”, “People” and “Animals”.
It’s no surprise that companies that fare well on “People” also tend to do well with “Planet” and “Animals.” So you can hit three birds in one stone!
Simply search a brand name on the app. You can also check out their website.
If a brand that you’re interested in does not appear in the Good On You app, you can see if any journalists have discovered something.
To quickly see if the brand has ever been uncovered in wrongdoing, in your search, type the brand name and then a broad, negative word such as “scandal” or “sweatshop”.
(Note that journalists sometimes may not have used the words “human trafficking” and “modern slavery” in their articles, even though labour abuses may constitute trafficking and slavery, so using broader terms help you find more information.)
If nothing comes up in your search even after entering a negative word, you can feel a bit more assured. At least this brand is not a known offender. It may even have taken steps to audit supply chains and prevent scandals in the press, which is a first baby step towards sustainability.
If you are really devoted to a single brand and want to learn more, you can go to a brand’s website and look for their Corporate Social Responsibility section.
Does the brand simply list community projects that it has sponsored, or does it go further and mention its commitment to human rights in its supply chain?
As the trend for sustainability grows, many certifications schemes have appeared.
Many certs aren’t obviously about labour standards, for example environmental ones, but actually also keep slavery out of supply chains. For example, the Global Organic Textile Standard certifies a product to be organic, but also imposes social responsibility standards to ensure that workers are not subjected to forced labour.
To gain certifications, companies have to subject their supply chains to some form of external monitoring, which makes it much more unlikely for slavery to go unnoticed.
Explore ideas like Slow Fashion or Capsule Wardrobe, which are about making small lifestyle changes with big sustainability impact.
Slow Fashion is a concept to counter Fast Fashion. By being slow and thoughtful in how we buy and wear clothes, we can be sustainable and also feel happy and wholesome with the clothes you already own.
The Capsule Wardrobe is a wardrobe with a small number of pieces of clothing. It emphasizes quality over quantity. Instead of being dictated by trends and feeling pressure to buy clothes to fit trends, you only own and buy items that reflect your personal style. By sticking to a consistent colour palette, you can make endless combinations. Here’s an introductory video about this.
There are social enterprises that you can support. Some of them employ survivors of human trafficking and modern slavery.
Also check out Freedom Bound for T-shirts and other casual wear.
There are many more out there and we encourage you to search for them.
Start by buying your basic items from good brands, like socks and T-shirts – those are the easiest to find. You don’t have to change all of your wardrobe straight away!
These are our 7 tips. We hope you’ve enjoyed them and feel inspired to make a change in your wardrobe!
Have something to add? Tell us on our Facebook Page.
You cannot tell whether a piece of clothing is ethical and sustainable just from the price tag. Ethical and sustainable products come in all price ranges, including some that are very affordable, at about the same prices as those from Fast Fashion brands.
On the other hand, there are luxury brands (a product perhaps worth several months of your salary) that were found to have weak labour standards and opaque supply chains.
If you are trying to have a more sustainable lifestyle, choosing quality over quantity, or even trying out Slow Fashion or making a Capsule Wardrobe, chances are that you may save a lot of money. That is because you buy less clothes that are only worn very few times before being forgotten or thrown away.
The “Made In” label tells you very little about labour rights in the supply chain. It only tells you where the last stage of production took place. For example, a shirt can say “Made in France”, but the cotton can be picked by a child in Ukbekistan, the fabric woven by a Uighur women in forced labour in China, buttons and threads can come from elsewhere and then finally, the shirt is finished in France. The label tells one story, but beyond the label, the entire supply chain can be full of human trafficking, modern slavery and other human rights abuses.
Conversely, if a label says “Made in Bangladesh”, that does not automatically mean that people are exploited or enslaved. Every country has good manufacturers, bad manufacturers and those in between. A good manufacturer can be providing good jobs in developing countries where they are most needed.
You may have heard of news about big brands using sweatshops. Does that mean we should stick to small boutiques and clothes without well-known brands? Not exactly.
In small shops, if the garment in front of you does not have a recognizable brand, it can be difficult to find information about how it was made, unless the shop you’re in offers this information to you. That does not necessarily mean there is a problem, it simply means that we don’t know.
With big brands, not all of them are created equal. Many big companies have systems to ensure labour standards, such as having third-party auditing. Others are not as transparent or accountable. Check out our tips on how to tell them apart.