Illegal brothels are flourishing in Melbourne and the authorities are struggling to stop them.
SHE had signed up to work in a brothel. But when Jessica arrived in Australia from south-east Asia, the young mother didn’t expect that her passport would be confiscated or that she would have to work off a debt to her traffickers. She didn’t know that she would have to live inside the brothel, on-call 24-hours a day, forced to have unprotected sex with countless men.
If she had, she says, she would have continued working at the brothel in her home country, where she was barely earning enough to pay off rising medical bills.
“They said it would be the same as in my country,” Jessica recalls. “They said it was safe. But I had to do everything. All of this with no condoms.”
Jessica had a valid student visa when she arrived. It had been arranged by the traffickers who were well aware of Australian laws that allow international students to earn a living as sex workers.
After receiving directions via a payphone at the airport and parting ways with the young women she travelled with, Jessica made her way to a legal inner-city brothel. When she arrived she gave $1000 the trafficker had given her to the brothel owner; a transaction she now believes was a finder’s fee payment. She was then forced to sign a contract that would effectively have her working as a sex slave for the next three months.
Jessica is now safe, but her story is not uncommon. The federal government’s Support For Trafficked People program has assisted 191 people since 2004, the majority of whom were forced into the sex industry.
But due to the nature of sex slavery, the number of women trafficked to Melbourne and Sydney’s inner-city and suburban brothels is likely to be much higher. Melbourne support group for women in the sex industry, Project Respect, has supported 20 trafficked women in the past 12 months.
Executive director Kelly Hinton suspects many more women who have come through her doors were also trafficked. “This is trafficking for the purpose of exploitation,” she says, adding that Jessica was tricked into harsh conditions and forced to sign a contract. “She was in debt and wasn’t allowed to use condoms and she could never decline to do a service because once she signed the contract she thought she had no rights.”
Two weeks ago, officers from Victoria Police’s newly-formed Sex Industry Co-ordination Unit (SICU) swooped on a business in Melbourne’s south-east. The taskforce was established on February 29 to coincide with legislative changes that made police the lead agency for investigations into the multi-million dollar illegal prostitution industry.
They charged a 66-year-old Bentleigh woman and a 64-year-old Ormond woman with forcing a child to have sex for money. The business was one of about 100 licensed brothels in the state. The legal sex industry estimates there are 300-400 unlicensed brothels across Victoria with links to human trafficking, tax evasion and organised crime.
Government corruption has also been a problem. City of Yarra planning enforcement co-ordinator Ken Wolfe last year pleaded guilty to taking more than $130,000 in bribes from illegal brothel operators. It was Wolfe’s job to enforce sex laws and shut down illegal brothels from Fitzroy to Richmond. An enforcement officer from Darebin council was also stood down in 2011 after it was revealed that he was involved in the illegal sex trade.
According to a Productivity Commission report released last month, local councils responsible for brothel planning, zoning and workplace health and safety, continue to identify illegal brothels and co-ordinate further enforcement with state and federal government agencies. The job of investigating illegal brothels has traditionally been split between councils, local and federal police, consumer affairs and the tax and immigration departments.
Port Phillip council conducted eight investigations into illegal and legal brothels in the 2011-12 financial year. Three legal brothels were found to be breaching their permits and the council pursued two cases at the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal. Echoing the findings in the report, Port Phillip council and the Australian Adult Entertainment Industry, the body that represents Victoria’s legal brothels, want police to take a more active role in the crackdown against illegal brothels.
Port Phillip mayor Rachel Powning said council officers continued to investigate illegal brothels before referring them to the police. “Police are better positioned to investigate and pursue allegations around illegal brothels due to the broader issues such as criminal activity and other related offences,” Cr Powning said.
“Any action taken under planning legislation for illegal land use generally results in an operator moving to another premise.”
Under local laws, councils have the power to prohibit the use of a premises where an illegal brothel is run for up to three months. But the legal sex industry claims this does nothing to deter illegal brothel operators who easily set up shop somewhere else.
AAEI spokesman William Albon commended Port Phillip council on its work against illegal brothels but conceded local laws were too restrictive. “Regrettably, the council can only use planning law and go after the owners of the land where the illegal brothel is sited,” he said. “Rarely is the owner of the land the illegal brothel operator.”
Since it was set up, SICU has investigated three illegal brothels. One of them is located in the City of Port Phillip, where South Melbourne has 10 per cent of Victoria’s licensed brothels.
However, the taskforce has failed to identify a new breed of brothel, which began promoting its prostitution racket through website Sweetybabe.net.
Sweetybabe clients access photo galleries and descriptions of sex workers “available today”, who are promoted as a mix of students, office ladies and clubbing girls in their late teens and early 20s. The website details the sex services provided and costs, starting at $350 an hour. Contact with the brothel operator is made via a 24-hour customer service hotline or Chinese social networking website QQ.
The illegal brothel employs at least 19 sex workers and was set up the day before SICU launched. Six new sex workers have been promoted online in the past week.
The racket, allegedly run by a Chinese syndicate that has spread from the suburbs to inner-city hotels, has recently made inroads across state borders to Sydney, Adelaide and Perth. A mobile phone app to complement the website is under construction.
Victoria Police Inspector Trevor Cornwill, who lead SICU until last week, said the taskforce was not investigating any brothels operating out of Melbourne hotels or Sweetybabe.net. “We are investigating one illegal brothel in Melbourne CBD based at a fixed address,” he said. “We haven’t looked at any hotels.”
Asked whether he suspected an illegal brothel was running out of Melbourne hotels, Inspector Cornwill said he wouldn’t be surprised. “Yes, it’s possible because these illegal brothels are quite fluid in that they’ll set up in one place and then move to another place. It wouldn’t surprise me at all.”
Sweetybabe clients are not told which hotel will be used until the day of the rendezvous; they are typically met by staff in the hotel lobby and given a key pass to access the elevators and hotel room. In some cases the illegal brothel operator uses one hotel room as a reception area, showing clients a line-up of sex workers and providing pre-booked rooms.
A customer who attended the mobile brothel operating out of rooms at Crown Towers on four occasions since March said he was offered sex each time and told he could request different women. He was asked to pay $350 an hour or $550 for two hours in return for sexual services.
The customer attended West Melbourne’s Flagstaff City hotel last month, where he was introduced to five women who were providing sex services out of two rooms. He was also offered sex at the Grand Chancellor in June.
In a members-only forum on Chinese dating website CatchGod, another client of the mobile brothel described his encounter with a Sweetybabe sex worker at Crown. He wrote that the sex worker charged $350 an hour for sexual services without a condom. “It’s worth the money,” he wrote. “This weekend I’m very satisfied. Thanks to the Sweety girls for providing a high-quality girl.”
The hotels have denied any knowledge of brothel activity.
Sex industry sources say they are concerned that the new police taskforce is too focused on illegal brothels operating in the suburbs to shut down the mobile brothel operating in the city. The owner of one of Port Phillip’s 12 legal brothels, who asked not to be named, was doubtful a small team of police officers could effectively crack down on operators. “I’ve heard about the new team, but there are not enough of them,” the owner said. “The problem is so big – illegal brothels are booming.”
One former brothel manager said he knew many Chinese sex workers who quit their jobs in legal brothels to work for the mobile syndicate. He said the women earned more money working for the mobile brothel because the customers, mostly young Chinese students, were prepared to pay more to avoid going to street-front brothels.
Since 2009 there has been a push to introduce signs in the reception area and all rooms of legal brothels that describe what sex slavery is and provide the phone numbers of local and federal police. However, unless the signs are displayed in languages other than English and unless the state government is on board, critics argue they will be useless.
Through an interpreter, Jessica said she was forced to sign a contract when she arrived in Australia. She believed she was not allowed to leave the brothel and with no understanding of local laws, she went to work.
“When a customer came in we all came out from the room and line up.” Jessica said she paid a cut of her wage to the brothel owner, the trafficker and the Malaysian agent who recruited her. Along with the Malaysian, Chinese and Korean women she lived with, some who were also trafficked, Jessica was available for sex 24-hours a day, seven days a week before she finally escaped.
(Jessica’s name has been changed)
Cops target sex slaves, fear women are being trafficked to work as prostitutes
POLICE fear South-East Asian women are working as sex slaves in local brothels.
An advertisement placed in The Southern Star by the Australian Federal Police states: “Some sex workers have been tricked or forced into sex work.
“Some have no choice over who they have sex with or what kind of sex work they do. They may not have access to the same health and safety services or work conditions as other sex workers.”
The advertisement, placed in the Adult Services section of the paper, goes on to urge readers to contact the police if they think this could be someone they know.
Acting national co-ordinator for human trafficking Matthew Heather said the ad was placed as part of a national campaign to raise awareness of sex trafficking.
Mr Heather said there were reports of migrants, particularly from South-East Asian countries, who voluntarily migrate to work in Australia but are later coerced into exploitative conditions.
“A lot of the time people are looking to find a better life for themselves,” he said.
“Various times the way they’re recruited is deceptive and once they get here they’re subject to harsh conditions or indeed slavery or servitude.”
He said lack of citizenship, language and cultural barriers, and working conditions prevented victims from coming forward.
“The crime itself can involve physical violence, which can instil fear in people and deception so they might not have all the information to come forward, or the capacity or confidence to do that themselves.”
Bronwen Healy, who operates Mt Gravatt’s Hope Foundation an organisation set up to help women caught in the sex industry said she believed legalising prostitution had driven up demand for sex workers trafficked from countries such as Thailand, Vietnam and China.
“It’s telling people it’s OK,” she said.
“Like anything, if you increase demand, you have to increase supply.”
Human Trafficking in East Asia
Nightmare or exaggeration; what’s happening with human trafficking in East Asia?
After decades of high economic growth combined with rapidly escalating population growth and compounded by massive wealth disparity, East Asia is a ticking time-bomb. Low wage rates and a severe lack of government regulation have already seen an influx of foreign wealth desperate to take advantage of the region, causing colossal social upheaval. As a result of that, an increasingly materialistic society seeking more and more has thrown caution to the winds to strive for higher salaries and a better standard of living, putting them at risk of being exploited.
Migration in Asia has always been a complex and politically sensitive issue, but in recent times it has shot to unprecedented levels. Interestingly, reports estimate that 30% to 40% of this is unregulated traffic. It is unclear how much of this migration flow is human trafficking, but it is clear that at the very least, a significant portion of it is.
Traditionally, migration in East Asia; whether illegal or legal, represented the shift of unskilled male workers. In the 1990’s, we began to see a shift towards a higher proportion of female workers, particularly seeking employment in the domestic sector.
An amplification in the demand for domestic servants in developed countries combined with unemployment of women in developing countries has seen the growth of entire organized crime gangs devoted to fulfilling this need, albeit illegally. This, in my opinion, is one of the most pressing issues of the matter at hand, particularly since the proceeds of criminal enterprise in human trafficking is quickly used to fund the entire gamut of organized criminal operations, including illegal arms purchases, drugs, and perhaps even terrorism. In addition to this, the human capital exploited in trafficking is used as cheap labour, whether in sweatshops, factories or even brothels. In fact, according to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), sexual exploitation is the “most commonly-identified form of human trafficking.”
This was part of a landmark report released by UNODC, which had several important findings, but two areas of concern that I felt deserved attention. Firstly, UNODC discovered that “most trafficking is national or regional and is carried out by people whose nationality is the same as that of the victims.” This shows that local criminal organizations are as much to blame as ‘international’ organizations.
Another of UNODC’s conclusions was that whilst convictions were increasing, the number of criminals escaping the law, particularly amongst the top echelon, remains disproportionately high. This is worrying, because the majority of those arrested are so-called ‘foot-soldiers’, lowly-paid thugs who, though performing the majority of the basic tasks of the trafficking ring, are easily replaced. It is their bosses, those with international contacts and multiple transport operations, that need to be targeted. Until it can be shown that there are significant risks currently not apparent to those on the top of these criminal trafficking organizations, international efforts to combat this menace will remain ineffective. As academic Jun JH Lee acidly remarks, “The routes, destinations, and modes of trafficking are fairly well known and stories of corruption among public officials and local authorities are common.” It’s widespread knowledge now that excessive demand is driving trafficking,
Let’s look at the root of the problem; the necessity for human beings. Often, institutions or institutional regulations are the cause. Consider the one-child policy in China that has lead to a skewed gender ratio. Because of this, brides are ‘sold’ for a premium across China. This situation presents issues for law enforcement agencies. The difficulties of separating trafficking from other forms of migration are highly problematic, particularly since bride ‘selling’ is a traditional practice, and participants can range from the willing to the coerced.
Is the media and research attention devoted to the ‘demand’ side of trafficking (particularly in South Korea and Japan) deserved? Considering that both the aforementioned countries have laws that do not allow unskilled foreigners to stay for even a short period of time, despite the critical shortage of labour, I’d say that the attention is certainly merited. New legislation that works to address this severe dearth of labour within a legal framework needs to be implemented.
Additionally, it has been acknowledged (in a US Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, no less) that links exist between serving US soldiers and pimps and bar owners around US bases in East Asia who exploit trafficked women. A reporter even documented that US military police routinely patrol and collect protection from bars and brothels around US bases, particularly in the Philippines, South Korea and Japan. This is yet another example of collusion with criminal groups.
Most countries in East Asia have a visa category for ‘entertainers’ which is often abused to traffic women for sexual exploitation. Worryingly, legislation in Japan and South Korea (the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law and the Departure and Arrival Control Act respectively) impose heavy penalties on migrants overstaying ‘entertainment’ visas, even if they have been coerced into doing so.
Granted, the South Korean national assembly passed in March 2004 a draft law, Prostitution Victims Prevention Act, which heavily criminalizes the acts of intermediaries in the sex industry. Hopefully, this will go some way towards helping the victims.
The relative invisibility of illegal migrants unfortunately limits the legal treatment that they can receive and so governments need to make it a priority to identify and contain these immigrants.
The key to addressing this detestable violation of human rights? Political support. Sure, governments have launched programs and issued laws but the truth is that much of these measures remain mere lip service. The dual problems at the crux of this issue that need to be addressed are the invisibility of illegal migrants and the involvement of organized crime. Human trafficking helps to fund and support other criminal activities. Trafficking plays a cyclical role with organized crime, and we must strike at both to render the world safe.