Here’s my investigative report in SCMP’s This Week in Asia on South Asian men being trafficked through marriage migration. Photo caption (above): Highly sought after Immigration Consultant Richard Aziz Butt (right) with his client in Hong Kong.
SLAVE HUSBANDS OF HONG KONG: THE MEN WHO MARRY INTO SERVITUDE
Vulnerable men from India and Pakistan are being tricked into arranged marriages and trafficked to Hong Kong where they work as bonded labourers and indentured servants for their in-laws, too afraid or ashamed to speak out
Shahid Sandhu’s sense of loss and anxiety from his loveless marriage knows no bounds. But his is more than a bad connection. From the time he left Pakistan to join his new wife overseas four years ago, she, her brothers and her parents have been controlling his every move.
They force him to work round the clock, seven days a week – as a bonded labourer at a construction site during the day and as an indentured servant at home on evenings and his day off. They beat him and verbally abuse him at any sign of exhaustion or dissent. They take all his money, refuse him food and have even threatened to kill him.
Sandhu knows what they are doing is wrong and illegal, but the endless abuse has broken him down. He battles severe depression and nightmares, too exhausted, afraid and ashamed to speak out.
Sandhu’s situation sounds as if it’s from a bygone era, but it is happening today, in one of the world’s most advanced cities: Hong Kong. And his plight is not unique.
Lawyers and NGO outreach workers in the city’s South Asian community say Sandhu is just one of dozens of known cases in which men have been tricked into arranged marriages before being trafficked to Hong Kong and forced into indentured labour by their bride’s family.
Typically, the men are preyed upon by future in-laws who select them for their vulnerability and promise them first-world lives that will enable them to support loved ones back home.
Once in Hong Kong, a combination of isolation, fear of retribution towards their families and a profound, culturally ingrained sense of shame prevents them from speaking out.
For every man who does come forward, untold numbers hold back, preferring to live out their miserable, hellish lives in the shadows rather than risk disgrace.
Campaigners have a term for these men: slave grooms.
The nightmare Sandhu found himself living is a far cry from the charmed lifestyle the 34-year-old had imagined when he was approached by a matchmaker about marrying a Hong Kong-born Pakistani woman. Hearing about her wealthy family helped seal the deal for Sandhu and his impoverished parents, who are farmers in the Punjab region of Pakistan. Sandhu, who has a university degree in commerce, had a respectable job at a bank in Pakistan, but his salary was meagre and the prospect of a prosperous life in Hong Kong meant financial security for his parents. He married his bride in Pakistan, arriving in Hong Kong months later on a dependant visa.
The post-wedding bliss vanished immediately. Sandhu’s in-laws and wife locked away his passport and identity papers for “safe keeping” – something that is against the law – then informed him that he would be working overtime at a construction site six days a week to earn money for his bride and her entire family. Every night, and on his one day off each week, he would do the domestic work. Whenever Sandhu complained, verbal and physical abuse kept him in his place.
“My in-laws were always bullying me. Although I am a university graduate, I was always called illiterate and a jungle man. Once I shouted back at them and they beat me. After that I was resigned to my fate and work,” he said.
Broken though he was, Sandhu did manage to reach out to Richard Aziz Butt, a sought-after immigration consultant in the South Asian community, having got his number from a work colleague. “I need to get out,” Sandhu told Butt. However, Sandhu was not willing to go to the police. Like many other slave grooms, he feared deportation, repercussions from his in-laws and shame.
“I would call him a slave groom,” said Butt. “His marriage was arranged so that he could be brought here to work as a machine to earn money for the bride’s family. All these things are elements of slavery,” Butt said. “The [victims] are monitored 24 hours [by their tormentors]. These people will not talk [to the police] even if they are abused.
“These men are from male-dominated [patriarchal] countries. If they say to someone that they were treated like slaves, people will laugh at them and call them cowards, useless and lazy. Therefore, they dare not say anything to anyone.”
Butt has met more than 100 South Asian men trafficked to Hong Kong through marriages since 1997. Their visas are usually processed directly by the family without a consultant or lawyer, to keep a low profile. “I believe 20 per cent of the husbands are slave grooms,” said Butt. “They are brought to Hong Kong to work for the wife and the family.”
Most of the men are from the Punjab region of Pakistan and India but some come from other South Asian countries like Bangladesh and Nepal.
Babu Bishu, a former pimp turned frontline NGO worker in Chungking Mansions – a building complex in Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong, known for cheap eateries, dodgy deals and as a gathering place for South Asians – has helped three men from the Punjab region of India who were trafficked into marriages and forced to work in restaurants and a tailor shop. Over the years, he’s met more than 200 vulnerable South Asians in Hong Kong who were deceived into forced labour. He says both men and women “from poor families migrate to Hong Kong through arranged marriages” and then find themselves enslaved – in some of the women’s cases as house prostitutes to be abused both by the groom and father-in-law. “It’s miserable. It’s heartbreaking,” said Bishu.
I featured one of the slave groom victims in a news documentary (uploaded not by me):