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The ‘Slave Grooms’ of Hong Kong

Pakistani men are unwittingly being sold as indentured servants to their brides’ families

“Slave grooms” — i.e., South Asian men tricked into arranged marriages — are being trafficked to Hong Kong and forced into indentured labor by the families of their wives.

Ashraf, a 35-year-old Pakistani man, is one of them.

He says his mother-in-law promised him that he’d enjoy a better life in Hong Kong and be able to support his parents financially. So he married her daughter, whom he met through a family matchmaker, in 2011 and moved to Hong Kong on a dependent visa.

When he arrived, however, his in-laws took his passport for “safekeeping” and began physically and verbally abusing him. “Every day [my] wife slapping me, [saying] bad language. … Sometimes I didn’t eat for two days,” he explained to the South China Morning Post last week.

When he wasn’t working as a full-time security guard, he was forced to cook and clean for his wife, her son from a previous marriage and his mother-in-law. His wife took the entirety of his salary and gave shim a small allowance for transportation to and from work.

“These ‘matchmakers’ find a man in a particular situation — often he’s the only son living in a poor household and not making very good money — and bring him to Hong Kong, which is notoriously lax in prosecuting human traffickers, to marry a woman so her entire family has access to free labor,” explains Matt Friedman, a human-trafficking expert and CEO of The Mekong Club, an NGO that fights modern slavery.

Friedman tells me that marriage trafficking has typically involved women being used as unpaid maids to cook, clean and do whatever other domestic labor is needed. But now, he says, men are starting to reveal that they, too, have been targeted for the same scam. While “slave grooms” have been around for some time, Friedman explains, shame has prevented their stories from being told. Now, more grooms are stepping forward to prevent other men from suffering a similar fate.

What makes this scam possible, Friedman explains, is the premium South Asians place on “saving face.” Single men in Pakistani families take pride in their favored status, so it’s difficult for them to return home and admit they’ve been duped and abused. “Men are supposed to be masculine,” he says. “They’re supposed to be the decision makers, they’re supposed to be the ones controlling the shots. The moment that’s turned on its head, it becomes embarrassing.” As one man explained, he’d rather be a slave than lose face.

Friedman’s wife, Sylvia Yu, was the first person to report on slave husbands in the South China Morning Post in May. “Sylvia has been writing about modern slavery/human trafficking issues for years,” he says. “This topic kept coming up among migrant advocate groups based in Hong Kong when she was seeking new story ideas. At first, she wasn’t sure if it was a real issue. But after talking with many people who were in this situation, along with those people who were helping these men, she realized that this is a phenomenon that was ever-present, but never explored.”

“There are all sorts of layers of complexity in the story about Pakistani men,” explains Anti-Slavery International’s Klara Skrivankova, a high school friend of mine who recently advised in a legal case concerning a Pakistani man trafficked to Hong Kong for forced labor. “The bottom line is that those who abuse these men’s vulnerability do so because they can get away with it due to a lack of support systems and recognition of the problem by the authorities in Hong Kong.”

Hong Kong officials ignore what’s happening to these men because they deny human trafficking exists in the first place — one of the few territories in the world still in denial. In reality, it’s been estimated that as many as one in six of Hong Kong’s 340,000 foreign domestic workers are victims of labor exploitation. And there are 36 million people currently enslaved worldwide, according to the Mekong Club. More than 9 million new people enter slavery every year, at a pace of about one every four seconds.

What makes marriage trafficking particularly difficult to prosecute, Friedman adds, is an entirely new set of rules once a person is married. “There’s no expectation that a person will get paid,” he says. It’s assumed that a husband will work — overtime, if necessary — to provide for his family. It’s also assumed he’ll sacrifice a portion of his freedom to comply with the needs and wants of his new family. As a result, familial slavery in Hong Kong is completely unregulated, meaning you can do things to your spouse you’d never be able to do to a paid worker. Case in point: 98 percent of domestic violence cases in Hong Kong go unreported according to academics and charity ­workers.

“People often say, ‘Come on, if he really wanted to he could just walk out,’” Friedman says. “But not if you’re in a foreign country and have no rights and can end up in jail at any moment.”

He offers an example: Let’s say you’re invited to Kunming, China. When you walk out of the airport, your passport and identification are taken away “for safekeeping.” You acquiesce because you’re told it’s customary, and besides, you don’t have a flight home. You’re brought to another location and told you can’t leave because if you do, you’ll be beaten and something bad will happen to your family. There’s no opportunity to communicate with anyone because you don’t speak the language. Your captors have likely already gone to the authorities, whom they’ve bribed for years, and told them you’re here illegally and a troublemaker, so you could be imprisoned at any time.

“People don’t realize how vulnerable someone is when a person has an intention to exploit them,” Friedman says.

On a more positive note, in December 2012, Ashraf escaped his wife and her family, with assistance from 43-year-old Bindar Singh, a man he met on the streets who gave him food and money and helped him find a free place to stay. However, he remains concerned that his wife’s brothers will retaliate against him, and he’s yet to return to Pakistan.

But Friedman is still optimistic.

“I do feel that these men will go home [eventually],” he says. “Most have remained in Hong Kong because they’re ashamed and embarrassed to face their families. But by telling their stories, they’ve taken the first step. The next step is to rebuild their lives and move on. For this to happen, we need to support them in a way that avoids them losing face. This is why telling these stories is so important. It helps to generate empathy and compassion for those who have been victimized. It also helps to prevent others from falling into the same trap.”