As she smiles at customers and makes small talk with regulars in a Hong Kong bar, Kat’s every move is being watched by her madam, or “mama-san”.
The 23-year-old from the Philippines has been forced to sell sex for the mama-san and her organised crime network since December when she was moved to Hong Kong under a recruiter’s promise of a well-paying job and easy working conditions.
A single mother, whose own mother is too sick to work, Kat jumped at the chance to earn a high salary but soon after arriving in Hong Kong, the mama-san confiscated her passport and sent her to work in the bar alongside other trafficked women.
Clients pay up to HKD5,000 (USD650) to have sex with Kat but payment goes directly to her pimp. Without any money, she said she cannot escape or fly home – and besides, her traffickers know where her family lives.
“I’m depressed. The other bar girls are depressed. They have to force themselves to be happy and make jokes,” said Kat, sobbing. “The Chinese bar owner gets angry with me because I look so sad.”
Prostitutes try to lure clients with offers of Thai massage on Reclamation Street in the Jordan district of Hong Kong. Photo: Ario Adityo/Thomson Reuters Foundation
Kat, who declined to give her real name, is one of hundreds of women who are trafficked to Hong Kong from mainland China, Southeast Asia, Europe and South America for forced prostitution in the city’s brothels, bars, spas and pornography industry, rights activists say.
Many victims do not speak out for fear of being punished by their traffickers, some of them linked to the powerful triad organised crime group. Others are afraid of being deported home or criminalised for being in the possession of fake papers arranged by their pimps, campaigners say.
“I take a risk every time I go out with a male customer,” said Kat, who also shudders at the parties she is made to attend where cocaine, marijuana and other drugs are used by clients and forced on the girls.
“They are great actresses because like one of them said, ‘I need to show that I am happy and OK even when I am not’. This to me kills a soul,” said Marcela Santos, an advocate for trafficking victims who did not want to give her real name, saying it may put at risk her work helping survivors with jobs, training and sometimes a flight home.
Last year, the U.S. State Department downgraded Hong Kong in its annual Trafficking in Persons report to its Tier 2 Watch List, just one rank above countries like North Korea.
The report criticised Hong Kong for not doing more to identify victims of sex and labour trafficking among vulnerable groups such as foreign migrants, domestic workers and women and children in prostitution.
In 2016, the police identified a total of 16 trafficking victims who were foreign women forced into prostitution.
A pricelist of sex workers based on their nationality is stuck in the entrance of massage parlor in Portland Street, Hong Kong, an infamous red light district where massage parlours and spas are a front for prostitution. Photo: Ario Adityo/Thomson Reuters Foundation
Hong Kong’s Security Bureau, in charge of law and order as well as immigration, said the police officers had been provided with regular training on identifying victims of human trafficking.
Recognising the need for more training, the Immigration Department and Hong Kong Police Force introduced new and revised procedures for identifying potential trafficking victims including a checklist for danger signs.
The list of vulnerable trafficking victims has also been expanded to sex workers, illegal workers and illegal immigrants.
“It’s often challenging for law enforcement personnel and service providers to identify potential victims. In most situations, victims cannot escape from the traffickers,” said Nurul Qoiriah, head of the Sub-Office of the U.N. International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Hong Kong.
Sandy Wong, chair of the Anti-Human Trafficking Committee of the Hong Kong Federation of Women Lawyers, said the best way to tackle forced prostitution was to target buyers of sex.
“Despite the police’s commitment and constant efforts in combating vice establishments, many operate in broad daylight and through the cracks in the legal system and evade arrest by police,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Investigating forced prostitution takes a long time with many victims unwilling to come forward as witnesses, she said.
“If we don’t stop the source of demand, there will always be someone who will provide the supply by hook or by crook,” Wong said, adding that Hong Kong should consider adopting a version of Sweden’s 1999 law which criminalises the purchase of sex.
Some victims blame police corruption for inaction over human trafficking in Hong Kong.
One of the Philippine women Santos helped to rescue, Jean, said she was brought to Hong Kong on a two-month tourist visa in 2014 by an organised crime group in the Philippines with triad links.
Her traffickers then used fraud to organise a two-year domestic helper visa for her as part of an arrangement with a bar in Hong Kong co-owned by a police officer – where she was immediately put to work.
“Of course it’s like torture to pay back the debt. The agent doesn’t care. They don’t know how clients treat you badly,” she said by telephone from Manila where she now lives.
A sex worker waiting for customers on Reclamation Street. Most prostitution businesses here use Thai massage parlors as their cover.
“Life was hell. The most traumatic thing is you have to do a lot of drugs. Clients ask you to buy drugs like cocaine, ice, marijuana … (They) make you take it with them.”
She said the pimps always knew when the police planned to come to the bar to check the women’s papers because their passports would be returned to them temporarily.
A Hong Kong police spokesman said the police force was committed to clamping down on triad activity and had adopted a zero tolerance policy on any form of police corruption.
The spokesman also told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the police force had provided “full assistance” to the Hong Kong Independent Commission Against Corruption during investigations into corruption complaints involving police officers.
Now receiving help for her drug addiction, Jean said her four-year-old daughter keeps her going.
Kat is not so lucky.
After hearing that her brother was left in a critical condition after an accident in the Philippines, she begged her mama-san to allow her to fly home.
But the woman refused.
“I don’t want to do this,” Kat said. “I want to get training and to apply for a job in a restaurant. I don’t want to come back to Hong Kong.”
Words/Photos: The Thomson Reuters Foundation
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been updated.