Title: Trafficking in Asian sex workers
By Angela Matheson
As a clothing machinist in Manila unable to feed and house her small son,
Susie accepted a job offer of sex work in Sydney. ``I am here'', she says,
``to work hard, and in six months I will go home and buy a house and have
some money left over.''
As an illegal worker with a false passport organised by an international
syndicate, 19-year-old Susie will not reveal her real name or where she
works. Her brothel lies somewhere in Sydney's west, where she has sex with
up to 20 men during 12-hour shifts. Her clients often refuse to use
condoms, but she is afraid to object for fear that the syndicate will turn
her over to immigration officials.
Her passport and return air ticket were taken from her on arrival. She has
worked without pay for two months and will continue to do so until she has
paid off a $20,000 debt set by the syndicate for arranging her job. She is
taken to and from the brothel from a boarding house staffed by the
syndicate in a minibus driven by a syndicate minder.
She lives in constant dread of contracting HIV and other sexually
transmitted diseases. ``In the first month I got a pelvic infection and I
used to cry just before I started my shift because I knew how much the sex
was going to hurt'', she says through a translator friend from a suburban
phone box. ``But I kept going to pay off my debt and soon I will be
One of thousands of women from Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and
China trafficked to Australia and other First World countries by crime
syndicates each year, Susie is the face of contemporary poverty. That her
job as a debt-bonded sex worker is the best economic option available to
her is a metaphor for most of the world's women, whose grinding
impoverishment in the Third World is accelerating.
The conditions of her work in Australia contravene a fistful of United
Nations conventions, including the Convention against Slavery, Servitude
and Forced Labour, the Convention against Traffic in Persons and the
Exploitation of Prostitution of Others, and the Convention on the
Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
Paying the World Bank
Countries like Australia, the USA and Germany are signatories to such
conventions, but the presence of women like Susie in their cities is a
result of the increasing poverty of developing nations due to the payment
of interest on loans relentlessly extracted by First World institutions
like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.
According to Aid Watch, a Sydney-based organisation monitoring Australian
government overseas aid programs, Australia is a significant player in
World Bank structural adjustment programs in the Philippines and Thailand
which have resulted in spiralling poverty.
Aid Watch director Lee Rhiannon says, ``These programs forced cutbacks in
social services, health and other social spending and have caused enormous
increases in poverty. This has forced young women from these countries to
travel overseas to find illegal work as prostitutes and domestics to
support their children and families.''
She points out that Treasurer Ralph Willis is ``one of only 20 governors
from around the world who sit on the World Bank and help shape these
In the last financial year, Australia gave $120 million to the World
Bank's International Development Association, which imposes austerity
programs on South-east Asian countries. ``Australia also has $2.6 billion
worth of shares with the bank which are used for Third World loans, and a
permanent executive to the World Bank stationed in Washington.
``The presence of Thai and Philippine women in Australia as illegal sex
workers is a direct result of World Bank policies which are significantly
shaped and imposed by Australia.''
The UNICEF report ``State of the World's Children'' documents that 82% of
the population of the Philippines have an income which cannot cover rent,
medical care, schooling for their children or food which gives families
basic nutritional requirements. A 1991 Oxfam study documented that in
Thailand, children are dying from malnutrition and preventable disease,
and bonded child labour, prostitution and illegal sweatshops support the
debt repayment imposed by the IMF even though the principal of the loans
has been repaid three times over.
Concerned bodies like the international Anti-Slavery Society for the
Protection of Human rights have repeatedly argued to the United Nations
that First World colonisation and exploitation made Third World loans
necessary, and as such, debt is ``contemporary slavery'' and interest
payments a form of ``national bondage''.
Yet Australia fails to take account of the role its foreign policy plays
in making the sex trade in Asian women viable, and rather than acting to
apprehend the traffickers and the men who use the women, governments
punish the women.
`Terrible, but ...'
Neither the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs nor the Federal
Police - the two principal government departments responsible for dealing
with illegal sex workers - believe they should take the wider human rights
issues into account.
A spokesperson for the minister for immigration and ethnic affairs says
human rights issues are outside the scope of the department. ``It's
terrible that Asian women are being treated this way by syndicates, but
our responsibility is to prevent illegal immigration.''
The Federal Police Special Crime Branch is currently involved in an
operation to crack down on the trafficking of women. Code named Paper
Tiger, the operation aims to target syndicate leaders and shut down
trafficking operations. ``The human rights issues are not something we can
be expected to take on board'', says media liaison officer Steve Simpson.
``How the Federal Police's mandate to stop the syndicates translates into
action is that they will go out and raid parlours, the contractors walk
away scot free, while the women are detained and deported'', says Geoffrey
Fysh, former project manager of the Surry Hills-based health organisation
Sex Worker Outreach Project (SWOP). ``And within a week the parlour is
filled with new girls.''
While the maximum penalty organisers of prostitution rackets receive under
the Crimes Act is three years imprisonment, the fate of some of the
deported women is chilling. ``Thai women who haven't paid off their
debt'', says Fysh, ``land in Bangkok where they may be immediately picked
up by the syndicate and put on a flight to Tokyo, Hong Kong or Frankfurt
to work out their contract. You can imagine how traumatic that is after a
spell in the Villawood detention centre.''
Bernadette McMenamin, director of the Melbourne office of the
international organisation End Child Prostitution, says that the
Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs' policies place the women
``at the bottom of the heap in their human right to be protected from
exploitation and violence.
``An international human rights issue is treated by Australian immigration
officials as the personal problem of the individual women rather than
being seen as a modern form of slavery'', she says. ``This makes it
impossible for the women to seek legal protection against the worst
excesses of traffickers and their accomplices.''
The only NSW government-funded services providing support for illegal
Asian sex workers are SWOP and the Sydney Sexual Health Centre (SHC),
which operate under twilight zone conditions. Confronted by a situation
where the incidence of a common sexually transmitted disease like
gonorrhoea amongst Asian sex workers accounted for 89% of cases seen by
the SHC in 1988-90, clinics and outreach workers give anonymous, free
medical services and encourage workers to uphold their right to safe sex
at work. They also provide counselling and supply information booklets in
several languages about safe sex, sexually transmitted diseases and
``We don't have any communication with the Immigration Department or
police and they probably don't want to know us either'', says the director
of SHC, Basil Donovan. The success of their intervention is borne out by
the fact that rates of STDs drop significantly the longer the women are in
While the combined focus of domestic laws, UN conventions and even human
rights organisations is to use law enforcement to end sexual trafficking
in women, Donovan believes such an approach is useless to the women.
``That's coming at the problem from a white, middle-class point of view'',
he says. ``Why would they want to stop coming here when conditions and pay
are so much better than what they get in Asia? And if the women can't work
here where they get medical checks with us every two weeks, their option
is to end up in a Bangkok brothel where in all probability they'll catch
AIDS and be dead within 10 years.''
His view is backed by two researchers and former workers at SWOP, Linda
Brockett and Alison Murray, who argue in a new book, Sex Workers and Sex
Work in Australia, that the economic advantages of working overseas for
Asian women outweigh the risks and conditions.
``It comes down to how much money you have in your hand at the end of the
night'', said a Chinatown sex worker, May, to Brockett and Murray. ``A
good night in Sydney, I make $400. A good night in Bangkok I make $20.
Fysh and Donovan opt for minor changes to the Immigration Act to offer
some protection for the women. ``Some people have suggested a special
working visa for these women so they're not at the mercy of the
contractors'', says Fysh. ``Ideally I'd like to see women in developing
countries be able to make informed decisions about working in other
countries, and have control and power to do that without a third party
standing over them taking the money.''
But with Australian immigration laws designed to let rich tourists in and
keep the Third World out, a legitimate work visa for Asian sex workers is
about as likely as the World Bank cancelling Third World debt. Federal
Police predict increasing numbers of Asian women will turn to illegal
traffickers, who at least provide them the chance of earning a living,
denied to them by the rest of the world. [First published, abridged, in
the Sydney Morning Herald.]
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