Activist, writer, sex-positive feminist, single mother, sandgroper, grumpy old woman.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

More sex slavery fuckwittery - migration agents

First paragraph...  "Licensed migration agents are helping bring women to Australia on student visas who end up working in conditions of sexual slavery or at illegal brothels".

Second last paragraph... However a [DIAC] spokesman said it has "no evidence to suggest any migration agents have been linked with people trafficking in the sex industry in the last five years".

Last paragraph... The Migration Agents Registration Authority [said] no agents in the past ten years had been sanctioned over allegations of sex slavery or trafficking.

No evidence to back up your claims, no experts in the field to support you, so just start the article with a clear statement of what YOU BELIEVE to be true and hope the reader doesn't read all the way to the disclaimer at the end? Is this what passes for 'investigative journalism' these days?

If we're going to talk about sex work and visas, lets look at what role migration agents actually play. And more importantly, WHY.

If you're an English 20-something barmaid who wants to come to Australia on a working holiday, you can apply for your own visa and sign up with one of a multitude of Australian employment agencies. On arrival, those agencies will ship you all around the countryside, from pub to pub, arranging your accommodation and transport, and (I would assume) negotiating your pay rate and working conditions.

You are only allowed to stay in the same place for a short time before you have to change employers - which country pubs are all in favour of because, and I quote, "We get a steady stream of pretty young things and it keeps the boys happy. Keeps them coming back to check out the new ones". So basically, backpacker barmaids are being used as the cheap and unskilled equivalent of skimpies, but I digress...

If you're a 20-something SE Asian or Eastern European sex worker who wants to come to Australia for a working holiday, there's a good chance you won't be able to apply for your own visa. Thanks to over-the-top anti-trafficking policies, some countries are actually denying visas to young single women who they 'suspect' might be intending to work as a sex worker.

Even if they do manage to get their own visa, sex workers don't have the luxury of employment agencies to assist them in finding employment and accommodation once they get here. In many Australian states, brothels are not allowed to sponsor or advertise for staff, and procuring (and anti-trafficking) laws make it difficult for third parties to help sex workers find work. So think about it... you're in a foreign nation, where you don't speak the language, trying to secure employment in an industry that is heavily regulated and often shrouded in secrecy. You don't know the local laws, you have no way of knowing which are the well-run brothels and which ones are dodgy and once you find a job, you have no idea what your rights are.

*Note: If the only information a migrant sex worker gets about Australian sex work is "Foreign sex workers are sex slaves, exploited, offering unprotected services, being raided and rescued", etc - from our sensationalist media - how do you think that affects their choices? What sort of working conditions will they accept if they think that's the norm? How do they stand up for their rights if they're led to believe they don't have any?

Taking all of this into consideration, is it really any wonder that sex workers from other countries choose to go through a migration agent and/or brothel syndicate? It may be their best option, or perhaps their only option. One thing's for sure, it will always be the most expensive option. Bringing someone into the country and circumventing (not necessarily breaking) laws costs a lot of money. That expense is then passed on to the sex worker. Having huge debts and being in a precarious legal position then leaves these sex workers vulnerable to exploitation.

Let me just say that again, to make it doubly clear - migrant sex workers are vulnerable to exploitation thanks to anti-trafficking laws and immigration policies. Unscrupulous operators might be taking advantage of it, but our laws and attitudes are CAUSING it.

Blanket bans and excessive controls lead to a violent, exploitative black market, dominated by organised crime. Did the world learn nothing from prohibition?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Exposing the Flesh Trade (aka Sensationalist Journalism 101)

There is no story in journalism that gets more clicks, fans and accolades than a sex slavery exposé. 

The readers lap it up. It tugs at the heart strings, gives us an 'insight' into a seedy underbelly that we've never experienced and will never understand, and plays on our xenophobia and inherent fear of anything sex-related. It gives us a damsel in distress to care about and a hero to worship - makes our stupid white selves feel proud that we have heroic white cops to protect naive Asian prostitutes from their scary Asian bosses.

For the 'investigative journalist', it's an easy story to write. Few people know the realities of sex work, so you can just write whatever stereotypical crap springs to mind. Few people know who the major players are, so you don't have to interview them if you think they won't toe the party line. Many people have preconceived ideas about Asian women (ie RACISM), so readers will believe you when you suggest they have no agency, or that every Asian woman lives in desperate poverty, or that Asian women make great sex toys, or that Asian women are too stupid to know when they're being scammed or exploited. (Let's just ignore the fact that most migrant sex workers in Australia come from the US, the UK and New Zealand. They're obviously big enough and white enough to look after themselves).

Not enough evidence of trafficked sex workers? No worries - that's because it's such a well-hidden activity. They're definitely out there. Honest. We just can't find them. Sure, that means we can't corroborate the excessive numbers we're quoting, but you can't refute them, either. So there. Checkmate. If all else fails, find any old case involving an Asian brothel and question why nobody has been convicted. If possible, make it look like a cover-up. That shit must happen all the time, because police are corrupt and Asian gangs are powerful, right? Yeah, why not. The readers will buy that.

Why are my knickers in a twist (again) about this topic? Well, The Age and Four Corners have partnered up to do an 'exposé on the flesh trade', which will screen on Four Corners on Monday night. The Age has posted a bit of pre-screening self-promotion here:

The article's language and imagery, and obvious bias, is appalling. Not to mention the graphic depiction of the discovery of the murdered man. Vile tragedy porn. What the hell is this story even about?

Let's look at the facts, without all the decorative detail. The dead man visited sex workers, used meth, and one night he stormed a brothel. The Age/Four Corners don't know exactly what happened that night, but they're convinced he was there with good intentions. Mind you, the police didn't press charges because they thought there might be a case for self-defence, which would suggest that after an extensive murder investigation, they believed the man was NOT there with good intentions. (Interestingly, the detective involved chose not to comment). 

But we all know there must be more to this story than meets the eye, because OMG THERE WAS BROTHELS AND ASIANS AND STUFF.

"...there were whispers of broken hearts - Papo had fallen for a Korean student before his death..."

So he was in love with a brothel girl, who obviously didn't feel the same way, or there wouldn't be any broken hearts.

"[Papo] told an officer he was gravely concerned for the welfare of a 20-something Korean woman he had dated named Kathy...who was being threatened and had had her passport taken from her."

Ok, so he actually dated the woman. In the past tense. This seems to confirm they had already broken up.

"Then there was the discovery that the quiet Asian girl who had lived with Abraham in the Papo house for a few months, often studying English books on his bedroom floor, worked in a brothel".

WAIT....WHAT? She lived with him??? Ok, now I'm all kinds of confused. Was she trafficked from Korea by a controlling evil syndicate, who then let her go off and live with her boyfriend for a few months? How long ago was this? Why did she move out?

"[Papo] told [David] he had called Kathy on her mobile ... Kathy had been taken to Sydney and forced to work against her will. ''He said she was being raped and beaten and [told me] that he had to help her,'' David's police statement says. 

It took me three times reading through this article before I noticed this bit... "she had been taken to Sydney". Maybe I just had a comprehension fail, or maybe it was all the flowery language and waffling about Papo wanting to 'help Kathy' that had me picturing him trying to storm the place and drag her out of there. She wasn't there. She was in Sydney. So maybe Papo stormed the brothel demanding to know Kathy's whereabouts?

''[Abraham] said that a male had then got on [Kathy's] phone and threatened him. The guy had said that he would chop him up if he came near her. He told me he then rang an Asian guy that runs a brothel in South Melbourne and had an argument on the phone about Kathy.''

Ok, maybe not. He had just spoken to Kathy on the phone. Did she not know where she was? If his aim was to rescue Kathy, would it not have made more sense to call the Sydney police? Or jump on a plane? He had the money his brother gave him (if that's true) to do it. Why did he (supposedly) borrow this money, if not to get to Sydney? At this point, it's starting to seem highly likely that he stormed the brothel with violent intentions.

The whole phone call thing is also interesting. Apparently this sex slave - the one who was allowed to go off and live with her boyfriend for a few months - also has a mobile phone. A man gets on her phone (the same man who was raping and beating her?) and threatens to chop Papo into little pieces if he comes near her. And then....

David also told police he had called Kathy on her phone and, in broken English, she had confirmed that she was with ''bad people'', was being hurt and was unable to talk.

...the man hands the phone back to Kathy, so she can be called at a later date by her boyfriend's brother. But she's not allowed to talk. She just has the phone for...I dunno...Angry Birds, or something.

Maybe the TV program will provide more information and help this story make some kind of sense, but as it stands, it has more than a few plot-holes. I reckon I could write a slightly more believable version, based on the 'evidence' presented thus far...

A guy starts seeing a sex worker and falls in love with her. She moves in with him and after a few months, things start to head south. Maybe he demands she stop working and she doesn't want to, maybe he treats her badly (my own experience with a meth-using boyfriend wasn't exactly a barrel of laughs), or maybe she just doesn't feel the same way about him any more. For whatever reason, she ends the relationship and moves back into the brothel.

Loverboy doesn't accept this decision and starts stalking and harassing her. He calls her, she tells him she's gone to Sydney, he starts yelling at her. Some bloke (her boss, new boyfriend) grabs the phone and tells him to leave her alone. Loverboy goes ballistic. He doesn't believe she's in Sydney. He knows she's still in Melbourne and just trying to avoid him. He calls the Melbourne brothel and the owner takes Kathy's side, telling Loverboy to just back off and forget about her.

He goes to the police and makes a sex slavery claim - not because he fears his ex-girlfriend is 'in trouble', but to set the wheels in motion for a trafficking raid, which will cause havoc for the owners and hopefully get Kathy detained and/or deported. The police don't take it seriously, or maybe he just can't be bothered waiting for them to act, so he takes matters into his own hands. He storms the brothel, assaults a guy, maybe steals some stuff, then pulls out a metal bar to finish the job.

Now I'm not, for one second, excusing the man who beat another man severely enough to kill him, self-defence or not. I'm only looking at the events leading up to that incident, which - when you take away all the sex slavery, Asian crime gangs and seedy brothel neighbourhood crap - looks very much like your garden-variety ex-boyfriend who wouldn't take no for an answer. Would we see this differently if Kathy had been white? Or if she'd worked at a florist? Or if Zheng had been a nightclub bouncer, not a brothel driver?

Then, towards the end of the article, we get to the really dangerous part of these kinds of stories - the calls to change the laws and crack down on licensing/trafficking/sex work. Anyone who actually knows anything about sex work laws, brothel licensing and anti-trafficking laws, knows it's the 'cracking down' that actually facilitates this sort of crime. Cracking down on visas forces migrant sex workers to seek assistance from agents/traffickers. Cracking down on brothels forces owners to cut corners, rip off workers, or operate outside the legal framework in order to remain profitable. Cracking down on brothel licenses sees rich, powerful 'cleanskins' with no brothel experience buying their way into the sex industry. These crackdowns are invariably introduced in the name of "protecting vulnerable sex workers", but they are always the people that end up being hurt the most.

In the days since The Age article and Four Corners promotion hit, there has been an avalanche of trafficking and sex slavery media in NSW and Victoria... name but a few.

By the you notice anything missing from all of these articles? All these calls to change laws, crack down on owners and "protect the prostitutes"? Sex worker voices, that's what's missing. The very people these politicians and noisy advocates claim to want to protect. So noisy that they can't hear sex worker groups screaming FOR FUCKS SAKE, YOU WANNA TALK ABOUT EXPLOITATION? HOW ABOUT WE START WITH YOU EXPLOITING US IN THE NAME OF POLITICAL POINT-SCORING?!

The voices of sex worker rights organisations will not be heard in the Four Corners piece. The Australian sex workers association, for example - who runs a federally-funded migration project, in partnership with sex worker organisations in SE Asia and staffed by multilingual migrant sex workers  - was actively refused an interview during production. In their attempts to redress this obvious bias, sex worker groups are now being refused interviews with the newspapers. If you want to hear that side of the story, you will need to go to their websites, follow them on Twitter and Facebook, read the Indy press. Because you ain't gonna hear it in the mainstream media.

Trafficking is real. Sex slavery is a heinous crime and anyone committing it should be hunted down like a dog and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. We need to be aware that these situations exist and to know what to do if we come across it. But writing racist, hysterical nonsense and actively excluding the experts from the discussion is not the way to go about it.