Head of Pro Bono and Community Investment in Hong KongA&O: 1990-2012
Using technology to provide access to legal aid for victims of trafficking and labour exploitation.
Globalisation has created opportunities for people to live and work almost anywhere in the world. With this comes access to cheap migration routes for low-skilled workers to the labour markets of richer countries.
In Asia alone, millions of people move to and from new countries every year, pursuing “better work for a better life”, as Douglas MacLean, Founder and Executive Director of the charity Justice Without Borders (JWB), puts it.
“It’s amazing how quickly and efficiently people can be hired and placed practically anywhere – national borders seem almost an afterthought now,” Douglas says.
But while labour migration brings benefits to both home and host countries, low-skilled migrant workers are vulnerable to labour exploitation such as underpayment, dangerous working conditions, confinement, forced labour and assault – as well as human trafficking.
“When things go wrong,” Douglas says, “national boundaries suddenly become very hard. Despite the growth in labour migration, the legal support needed by victims of exploitation rarely covers the routes they travel. When they go home, access to compensation is a world away.”
Douglas set up JWB in 2014 to address this issue. The charity helps victims of human trafficking and labour exploitation to seek compensation against their abusers.
In August 2016, the Allen & Overy Foundation Global Grants Programme awarded JWB a GBP75,000 grant over three years to support its work, in particular to build access to legal aid along the migration routes from the Philippines and Indonesia to Hong Kong and Singapore. Soon after, A&O’s Hong Kong, Singapore and Jakarta offices began providing pro bono support to JWB as well.
Catherine Husted, former A&O partner and now Head of Pro Bono and Community Investment in Hong Kong, explains: “We offer all A&O’s global grants recipients pro bono support alongside our financial contribution. One of the areas we’re focusing on with JWB is how video technology can provide access to courts in Singapore and Hong Kong for workers who are pursuing claims once they’ve returned home.”
Michelle Yu, a JWB board member and Morgan Stanley’s Anti-Corruption Counsel for Asia, continues: “Both Hong Kong and Singapore courts allow the use of video evidence and have even introduced dedicated Technology Courts equipped with video conferencing facilities that enable a person to speak remotely. In magistrates’ and district courts, the lawyer still appears in front of the court while the client gives testimony via the video link.
“But most migrant domestic workers’ claims are heard in lower courts. The Labour Tribunal and Small Claims Tribunal also have the legal authority to hear video evidence, but neither does. This is in stark contrast to commercial cases, where the courts regularly use video links.
“The time and cost of travel make attending court very difficult – but staying in Hong Kong can be incredibly hard too. Migrant workers need employment to maintain residency or else must obtain a special pass while awaiting trial, which means they’re forbidden to work. It’s an impossible situation that prevents many from even attempting to seek legal aid.”
A&O is now researching the same issues in Singapore. “A number of challenges exist,” says Catherine, “not least that the Technology Court costs SGD1,300 per day. The courts can also demand a specific type of video conferencing venue on the client’s side (eg an arbitration centre), which adds extra expense. Foreign workers in Singapore are not guaranteed legal aid, so we’re investigating whether there could be a public interest fee waiver or other way to get around the prohibitive costs.”
Michelle believes the impact of this technology will fundamentally change the landscape of transnational justice and could spell “the difference between access to justice or ending up empty-handed for thousands of workers”.
Technology is supporting the outcome of compensation claims in other ways, too. An important message JWB promotes is the need to retain documentation. “Very often, workers sign contracts and never see them again,” Michelle says. “So we encourage everyone to obtain a second smartphone with roaming data (to guard against employer theft), and to send photos of documents, via WhatsApp, to family members back home.”
JWB’s work is expanding in Asia, building capacity to address potentially thousands more cases, as well as training partners on how their clients can access the Technology Courts. As Douglas says: “If exploitation is global, than justice must be too. The culture of impunity has been built over time, but bringing it down can happen faster.”
1Justice Without Borders (JWB) is a registered US non-profit corporation, with a registered charitable affiliate in Hong Kong. JWB coordinates legal and paralegal aid that is provided by properly qualified local service providers in targeted home and host countries. JWB is not a law firm and thus does not provide any legal advice.
Far left: Indonesian community leaders in Hong Kong learn how to identify potential civil claims for workers – and what to do when those workers return home.
Left: JWB Hong Kong staff help a client prepare for testimony in a successful claim against an employment agency that overcharged for many months of salary.