How long can the sex industry deny trafficking?

“Their passports are taken. They are told they are here to undertake sexual services and they will not be paid."

As published at Melinda Tankard Reist

AFP reveals sex trafficking based in Sydney brothels

How can the sex industry continue to deny the reality of trafficking in this country? Of course it is in their interests to play it down, given their brothels are hungry for as many women as possible to meet demand. The AFP has provided evidence of trafficking in NSW brothels to a parliamentary inquiry. 

Collective Shout has made a submission to the Inquiry into the Regulation of Brothels, authored by Dr Caroline Norma, extracts below. (The full submission can be found here.)

AFP reveals sex trafficking based in Sydney brothels

One in four investigations into sexual exploitation is centred around brothels based in Sydney, the Australian Federal Police has revealed.

The AFP’s manager of victim-based crime, Commander Glen McEwen, told a parliamentary inquiry into the regulation of brothels on Friday that there were 24 separate investigations involving alleged sexual servitude in the previous financial year, six of which were focused in NSW – and some still ongoing. But he believes that number represents a “fraction” of the abuse that is passing under the radar, describing the human trafficking problem as “wide and vast.”

Commander McEwen supplied the select committee with a “snapshot” involving “opportunistic” criminal syndicates and vulnerable women, from Asia, “seeking to improve their own life, and those of their family, by moving to Australia for legitimate work.”

He spoke of a Thai woman duped into believing she was about to embark on an apprenticeship in hairdressing. “Unfortunately that’s where the exploitation commences,” he said of both her and others snared in the same trap. “Their passports are taken. They are told they are here to undertake sexual services and they will not be paid because their travel was funded by facilitators and must be repaid.” Read full article

Challenging the culture of denial on sex trafficking in Australia

Recommendation: The NSW government should commission research into the extent of organised crime, trafficking victim, and foreign national involvement in NSW’s sex industry.

The Asianisation of the NSW sex industry continues, and trafficked Asian women in the NSW sex industry continue to remain unrecognised as victims. The 2012 The sex industry in New South Wales: A report to the Ministry of Health document identified more than 50 per cent of survey respondents in approved brothels in metropolitan Sydney as of ‘Asian’ or ‘other non-English speaking background’, and nearly 45 per cent of respondents as speaking only ‘poor’ or ‘fair’ English. Despite this finding, the authors maintain they found ‘no evidence of recent trafficking of female sex workers in the…brothel survey’. But it is unlikely that women who cannot speak English, and who are from impoverished countries like Thailand, have had the resources and networks to ‘migrate’ to Australia independently (organising visas, flight tickets, accommodation in Australia), and organise a ‘labour contract’ with a brothel owner. While lack of English and foreign nationality do not, in themselves, constitute evidence of trafficking, they do point to the existence of a significant channel of women coming from, particularly, Asia into the Australian sex industry. Given the poverty of women living in the Asia-Pacific region, it would be prudent to assume that some form of trafficking crime is taking place in Australia. The UK government exercises this kind of caution in relation to the possibility. The presence of foreign women in that country’s sex industry who do not speak the local language is recognised as a red flag of trafficking; a new law against prostituting a ‘coerced, deceived or threatened person’ came into effect in the UK in 2010 after an NGO found more than eighty per cent of prostituted women in London were foreign nationals.

Asian-styled ‘massage’ parlours comprise a large part of the NSW sex industry, and are a sector that is wholly unregulated and unmonitored. There is no question that these venues are mediating the prostitution of women, and particularly women of Asian backgrounds. Massage parlours almost totally ignore local council requirements for business registration. They are often run by syndicates who transport women between different venues and locations. This takes place particularly for Asian-background women in the sex industry. It was reported in October 2011 that an “inner-city Sydney brothel . . . specializes in Korean prostitutes and is closely linked to the Comancheros outlaw motorcycle club and senior Asian organised crime figures”. In March 2008, three people were arrested in Sydney for sexually enslaving 10 Korean women, and in December 2008, a Korean woman thought to have been involved in Sydney’s sex industry was found dead in an apartment…

Recommendation: The over-representation of Asian-background women with poor English proficiency in the NSW sex industry should be recognised as a red flag of trafficking crime, and action taken accordingly.

The deregulation of most of the Australian sex industry means that awareness about trafficking, and initiatives to detect it, are almost non-existent in the country. The Australian Anti-People Trafficking Interdepartmental Committee not only restricts its focus to trafficking taking place ‘outside the sex industry’ (with program funding directed accordingly), but openly declares an ongoing intent to exclude the sex industry from view: ‘During the next year there will be a continued focus on issues related to trafficking of people for exploitation outside the commercial sex industry’. Indeed, the Australian government closes its eyes to trafficking into the sex industry. Police in the country’s capital admitted to a 2012 parliamentary inquiry that no checks on either licensed or unlicensed brothels had been performed for a period of five years in the territory. A view of prostitution as work circulates so strongly in Australian society that trafficking victims are barely conceived of in public policy, let alone identified. There have been less than fifteen convictions for trafficking-related offences in the country. Foreign women in prostitution are simply perceived of as sex work migrants. This is shown in a 2012 The sex industry in New South Wales: A report to the Ministry of Health document in which the authors identify more than 50 per cent of survey respondents in approved brothels in metropolitan Sydney as of Asian or other non-English speaking country background, and nearly 45 per cent of these respondents as speaking only ‘poor’ or ‘fair’ English. Nonetheless, they find ‘no evidence of recent trafficking of female sex workers in the…brothel survey’. Recent developments in Australia toward the introduction of a ‘sex work visa’ category further reflect this idea of prostitution as an industry into which women simply migrate for labour.

A second indicator of trafficking in Australia is the emergence of ‘Asian women only’ brothels, which have become popular in recent years, and particularly in NSW. The Queensland Prostitution Licensing Authority in 2011 noted with concern in its annual report that this type of brothel had become more common. Asian-women only brothels was also mentioned earlier in a 2009 report commissioned by the Victorian state government in relation to venues that offer women for prostitution on a ‘rotation’ basis. This is a well-known practice of traffickers. A brothel manager interviewed by researchers in Australia in 2009 described the practice of ‘rotation’ in this way:

Most of them [i.e. Asian women in prostitution], they’re just here on working visas and then they buzz back overseas in three months because they [brothel owners] turn them over. Their policy is to turn the girls over all the time. So the way they do it is they work between three or four brothels and they have them working one week there, one week there, one week there and they say, advertise, new girls, new girls. They haven’t got new, they’re just back after three or four weeks at another place they just rotate them around.

This practice of ‘turning girls over’ and ‘rotating them around’ generally requires the trafficking of women. In order for pimps to be able to offer customers a ‘variety’ of women (and thereby make more profit), they need to secure networks and channels for the procurement of women. The existence of ‘Asian-only’ brothels allows pimps to sell trafficked women on a rotation basis with less possibility of being reported to authorities by local women in the industry.

The emergence of ‘Asian women only’ brothels in Australia shows how well local pimps have developed networks and channels in overseas countries. While there are, of course, many women of Asian-backgrounds living in Australia, the overall lack of English language skill among women in prostitution in Australia suggests that pimps aren’t recruiting local Asian women. On the contrary, they are advertising women precisely on the basis of their foreign nationality, as this quote from a prostitution buyer on a review website indicates:

Lately there has ben [sic] a number of girls advertising/claiming to be Japanese, Korean etc with similar websites and photos and different names. Are they the same girl or are there a whole lot of them that have decended [sic] into Melbourne.

The sex industries of, particularly, Melbourne and Sydney have become ‘Asianised’ over the last decade, as this quote from a prostitution buyer posted to an online reviewer website indicates:

Club 8 ran by new management with an overhaul of Australian WLs [i.e., prostituted women] to give us mostly Chinese and Korean WLs now. The facilities at Club 8 look like the Hotel brothels you get in China with all the space, huge lounge/waiting room, counter and hotel-styled rooms…

The ‘Asianisation’ of the Australian sex industry points to an increasing involvement of pimps and sex industry investors from countries like Korea and China. While this, too, doesn’t necessarily constitute evidence of trafficking, it does show the likelihood that brothel owners in Australia have contacts among sex industry business people overseas, and possibly use these networks to procure women, and ‘rotate’ them around licensed and unlicensed prostitution businesses in Australia.

In spite of these many outward signs that trafficking is a feature of the Australian sex industry, government officials and researchers continue to repeat the claim that trafficking is rare in the country. For example, the 2011 report of the Australian Commonwealth Anti-People Trafficking Interdepartmental Committee claims that ‘[o]pportunities to traffic people into Australia are limited because of our strong migration controls and geographic isolation. This statement reflects some naivety about the extent to which the sex industry is moving women around in Australia (i.e., trafficking them) to meet demand for prostitution. It was reported in July 2012, for example, that Asian women are being trafficked into mining towns like Mt Isa, and are ‘working on a fly-in, flyout basis, two weeks here, two weeks in the next town and so on; they are being advertised as available in the local newspapers, and they are coerced or threatened into doing it’. The US Department of State in its 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report describes the trafficking of women into prostitution in Australia in similarly clear terms:

[S]ome brothels are run by Asian organized crime groups that arrange for Asian women to travel, sometimes on student visas, to work in brothels. The women and girls are sometimes held in captivity, subjected to physical and sexual violence and intimidation, manipulated through illegal drugs, and obliged to pay off unexpected or inflated debts to their traffickers.

The culture of denial that surrounds sex trafficking in Australia contributes to an environment in which prosecutors bring very few trafficking-related cases to court (less than 40 in the country’s history), and achieve very few convictions (less than ten). When a conviction is achieved, moreover, prison sentences are often allocated to the women controlling the victims (who are often former victims themselves), rather than the (mostly male) pimps who organised their traffic. In one case tried successfully this year, a former prostituted woman (from Thailand) was convicted of a slavery offence, while the man she was connected to, who raped the victim soon after arriving in Australia, was not tried on any trafficking-related charge. While the woman was certainly involved in the victim’s trafficking, and should indeed be penalised, the fact she herself had been in prostitution before the victim was trafficked into Australia suggests she might not have been the original instigator of the crime. The Australian courts are ignorant of the sophisticated strategies of traffickers, which include using former trafficking victims as recruiters.

The Australian anti-trafficking legislation contains only weak provisions against the brokers and middlemen who are crucial to trafficking networks worldwide. The government continues to see sex trafficking as organised by a few rogue individuals, rather than well-connected organised crime networks. The Australian Federal Police were criticised in the media in 2011 for failing to coordinate with Taiwanese public prosecutors over a trafficking network operating in Taipei that sent a number of women to Australia. There appears to be a lack of comprehension among high levels of government, the judiciary, and law enforcement in Australia about the attractiveness of the country for pimps and traffickers in the Asia-Pacific region.

Australia is seen as an ‘attractive’ investment destination for pimps and traffickers because most of the country’s sex industry operates free of government monitoring and intervention. Even when state governments introduce licensing systems for brothels, this doesn’t necessarily mean they perform checks on the sex industry. This kind of welcoming environment for sex industry businesses makes Australia an attractive target for sex industry investors, and therefore makes Asian women vulnerable to cross-border trafficking into Australia, given the country’s location in the region. The Australian government does not publicly acknowledged any link between the country’s large and legal sex industry and the trafficking of women. It prefers to think that the causes of trafficking reside in other countries, and not within Australia’s borders. This view is clearly expressed in a June 2011 statement by Australia’s permanent mission to the United Nations. According to the mission, there are two causes of trafficking, both of which originate overseas. The first is the ‘poverty, unemployment, corruption, gender inequality, lack of access to education and discriminatory cultural norms’ of countries other than Australia. The second is the inadequate ‘capacity of States to address trafficking in persons’—states overseas, that is, and not Australia. 28 The Australian government also likes to imagine, as much as possible, that trafficking is a crime that occurs outside of the sex industry. The most recent Australian federal Anti-People Trafficking Interdepartmental Committee report shows how keen the government is to draw attention away from trafficking as a crime driven by demand for prostitution, and toward other industries and forms of labour smuggling:

During the past year, the Australian Government has maintained its focus on combating trafficking for labour exploitation…During the next year there will be a continued focus on issues related to trafficking of people for exploitation outside the commercial sex industry (italics added).

When the government is forced to recognise the existence of foreign women in Australia’s sex industry, it prefers to imagine these women have autonomously ‘migrated’ to Australia to pursue ‘sex work’, rather than having been trafficked. In other words, the government subscribes to an idea of ‘migration for sex work’. It promotes this revisionist idea of trafficking through measures like funding a project by an organisation called the Scarlet Alliance in 2009 to ‘raise awareness’ among ‘migrant sex workers’ about the ‘legal and migration rights and responsibilities to people considering travelling to Australia for sex work’….

Recommendation: the sex industry should be recognized as posing an unacceptably large public health risk in NSW…Efforts should be made to reduce its scale and size as part of public health prevention efforts.

…research shows the heinousness of the situation facing Asian women in the NSW sex industry, and the unlikelihood these woman have entered the industry through strategies other than debt-bondage, manipulation and coercion, which all fit the Australian federal legislative definitions of trafficking….research shows the extend of mental health harms inflicted on women in the NSW sex industry, and the unlikelihood of women In the sex industry having the psychological capacity to exit the industry into mainstream work, due to the extent of abuse sustained in prostitution.

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