Following the arrest of 99 migrant sex workers in “one of Hong Kong’s biggest anti vice crackdowns”, NSWP member Zi Teng has called attention to the need to protect the rights and safety of sex workers through decriminalisation and recognition of sex work as work. In the wake of recent raids, Ping from Zi Teng told media: “To us, it seems that the Hong Kong government views sex workers as some dust that they want to sweep under the carpet.”
On the last day of January 2018, more than 60 police and immigration officers from Hong Kong’s Special Duties Squad, Special Task Force, Anti-Triad Section, Police Tactical Unit and the Immigration Department carried out a joint raid on a high rise building in downtown Mong Kok. According to Nick Pearson, the Chief Inspector of Mong Kok police district, “during the operation, a total of 101 doors were forcibly opened as they refused to open.”
99 women (92 cis, 7 trans) aged between 18 and 33 were arrested, along with 2 men, both aged 29. Asia Times reported that the women were arrested for soliciting for immoral purposes. The two local men were arrested for alleged “control over persons for the purpose of unlawful sexual intercourse or prostitution”. According to reports the two men are accused of being related to a larger ‘syndicate’ and being “responsible for providing daily necessities to some of the women in the building.’ Police also confiscated 1,600 condoms and several computers during the operation.
According to South China Morning Post, officers arrested have kept the women detained under suspicion of the corresponding visa breaches should the allegations regarding solicitation be founded. The women were described in further detail with 59 of the women coming from mainland China, 17 from Russia, 13 from Thailand, 2 from Ukraine, 1 from Kazakhstan.
Working as a sex worker in and of itself is not a criminal offence in Hong Kong, but many of the acts which are inevitably linked to sex work are criminal charges – which is the case under British law as well as many former British colonies who haven’t undertaken substantial sex work law reform in the last century. Sex worker rights organisations often report on the harms such laws have on sex workers’ ability to seek help from law enforcement, receive fair treatment or even be believed when experiencing violence.
Charges such as “run[ning] a brothel of two or more people,” “living off the earnings of a prostitute”, or “control[ling] a woman for the purpose of prostitution” have left sex workers isolated and stigmatised, as laws fail to distinguish between abusive and non-abusive relationships.
This punitive approach from the government leaves sex workers unprotected under the law, with migrant sex workers experiencing some of the harshest penalties. Soliciting for the purposes of sex work is already criminalised in Hong Kong, and migrant sex workers also experience harm from discriminatory migration policies which prevent many people from mainland China or other countries outside Hong Kong from being able to work legally - as sex workers, or in other industries.
Lack of legal protection is leaving sex workers fearful of reporting incidents where they are victims of crime, due to concern they may be charged and potentially deported themselves. Various third party criminal laws prohibiting sex workers from hiring security or working with co-workers are also leaving sex workers unable to protect themselves. The situation is further exacerbated by police acting in an enforcement role, which sees sex workers arrested for working – negating the police’s ability to serve any role which protects sex workers’ safety or rights.
In late 2017, Hong Kong was found to have the highest proportional female prison population globally, with charges for migrant sex workers and drugs contributing to the bulk of these numbers. As a special administrative zone Hong Kong’s immigration department imprisons many women from neighbouring countries as well as mainland China for breaching their conditions of stay by working without approval from the Immigration Department. As Li from Zi Teng told media last year, some police were found to be breaking into women’s flats when they are not working and arresting them without any evidence. She added that some women have reported cases of officers indecently assaulting them before carrying out official procedures.
In the first 11 months of 2017, about 4,000 people, mainly visitors from the mainland, were arrested in connection with vice activities in the city. In all of 2016, local authorities picked up 4,160 people and 4,589 in 2015.