Bringing Light to the Darkness of Human Trafficking (Trafficking in Persons)

Thai massage therapist Sabaitong Prachantasen thought her prayers had been answered when she was given a lucrative offer to work in New Zealand.

The therapist was offered $15.50-hour, which is high by her country's standards, to work at a Thai massage parlour in Auckland.

But when she got here Prachantasen said she was told her employment contract was for "immigration purposes only" to get her a work visa.

Instead, she would only get a 41 per cent commission for the massages that she gave.

"My whole life in New Zealand is just centred around [the company], because I was expected to be there from opening to closing time... so in fact, I had no life," Prachantasen said.

Immigration New Zealand area manager Marcelle Foley confirmed investigations were currently underway in some parts of the massage industry.

The company closed down following an investigation by the Labour Inspectorate.

"The Labour Inspectorate investigated [the business] and provided support to an employee to engage with the liquidator to claim unpaid holiday pay, which has led to an unsecured creditors claim being lodged," Foley said.

"INZ works alongside the Labour Inspectorate and other government agencies as part of a whole-of-government approach to combat migrant exploitation."

However, Prachantasen's application to transfer her work visa to work at another Thai massage business was declined by Immigration.

She was also declined a partnership visa following her marriage to New Zealander Daniel Gray and they have both left for Thailand.

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Thai massage therapist Sabaitong Prachantasen didn't get paid what she was promised by her employers and couldn't get a visa to remain in NZ with her Kiwi husband. Photo / Supplied

Three other massage therapists told the Herald the practice of paying commission only was widespread in the industry.

A woman, who worked at a Chinese massage outlet in an Auckland shopping mall said she was paid $30 for a 10-hour work day.

Another Thai massage therapist said she had to offer "happy endings" to clients in order to make ends meet.

The therapist, who spoke to the Herald on the condition of anonymity, was here on a legitimate work visa.

Like Prachantasen, she too was recruited in Thailand, and was offered - on paper - a $19-an-hour salary but is being paid just on commission.

"I give happy ending (a sex act) because I have to make the most money from every client, otherwise I won't have enough money to pay rent," she said.

More than 300 massage therapists have been granted visas to work in New Zealand over the last two years.

Foley said although New Zealand legislation specifically excluded migrants on temporary visas from lawfully providing commercial sexual services, they could be granted visas to work as massage therapists.

Massage therapists required a skill level 2 position, so applicants needed either a level 5 qualification or three years' relevant experience to be approved a work visa, Foley said.

"Applications for a visa to work as a massage therapist are robustly assessed," Foley added.

Over the last two years, there were 389 applications lodged by foreign nationals to work as massage therapists and 303 had been approved.

But many working in massage parlours and centres that offered sexual services were migrants on temporary visas, such as a student or visitor visa.

Foley said the agency was "very aware" that migrants working in the massage therapy industry could be "vulnerable to exploitation".

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Thai massage therapist Sabaitong Prachantasen didn't get paid what she was promised for work in NZ and couldn't get a visa to remain here with her Kiwi husband Daniel Gray. Photo/ Supplied

However for privacy reasons, he was not able to comment on any current active investigations including the massage industry one.

"Employers who exploit their workers such as paying them less than the minimum wage or making them work excessive hours or pressuring them into offering sexual services are breaking the law," Foley said.

Brothel raids

Alistair Murray, another of the agency's area managers, said INZ did not keep a record of brothel raids by its compliance officers.

However, the Herald has been told of raids across Auckland and also in Canterbury, Hamilton and Invercargill.

Brothel raids have been happening for years.

In 2014, a brothel raid resulted in three sex workers being served deportation liability notices.

In 2012, eight brothels were raided and officials found 21 foreign sex workers working illegally.

And in 2007, six brothels were raided by Auckland police and immigration officers. In one a client jumped to his death from a window to avoid being identified.

"We don't keep figures on the number of brothels visited in a reportable format but officers visit hundreds of places of employment, including brothels each year," Murray said.

"The New Zealand Police also undertake work in this area and we work closely with them."

Immigration adviser and former immigration minister Tuariki Delamere was of the view that random raids on brothels were illegal.

The Prostitution Reform Act 2003 had made it legal for New Zealand citizens and residents to work in the sex industry.

He said the law meant police needed a warrant to raid massage parlours, and claimed many had been conducted without one.

Delamere had represented about 35 migrant sex workers who faced immigration issues over the last decade.

He also believed the law banning temporary sex work was wrong.

"In my opinion, a law that makes foreigners criminals for something that New Zealanders can do lawfully is morally repugnant," Delamere added.

Exploitation evident

A report by the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, being launched tomorrow in Wellington, said there was no hard evidence of women being brought here against their will for sex.

But it found many examples of migrant sex workers facing abuse and exploitation.

The report "Sex Workers Organising for Change" blamed New Zealand immigration laws for putting them in situations where the sex workers were vulnerable for exploitation and at risk of trafficking.

Participants in the study shared stories of being exploited, threatened and abused in New Zealand.

China-born Amy said brothel operators expected sex workers to be available for work at all times.

"No, not forcing but... they asked the girls to come and work for them but they didn't care about the girls - that's my point," she said.

Amy also copped abuse from clients with racist and stereotypical views of Asian sex workers.

"They will grab you and say 'I'm gonna do this' and you can say no but they won't listen to you," she said.

"You will say 'stop' and they say they want their money back... because they can't get what they want like in other Asian countries."

Sex workers were also found to have reduced control over working hours and were made to pay "unreasonable living costs" to brothel operators for staying on the premises.

A migrant sex worker was extorted for free sex by a client who said he threatened to report her to Immigration.

"He had shown up and said 'you have to have sex with me for free or I'm going to call Immigration'," said another participant Lydia.

"I think it happened to her like three times and she was really scared and really traumatised."

Sex work is the only occupation that temporary migrants on visitor, work or student visas are not legally allowed to take up.

The report said the current law "disempowered them" and created a "fear of contact with authorities" because migrants who were found to be doing sex work could face deportation.

New Zealand Prostitutes Collective national co-ordinator Catherine Healey said in the report that the law "facilitated the conditions that are required for trafficking by rendering the sex workers who are working as migrants illegal".

"We have a concern... the concern is very, very real," Healey said.

But a lack of in-depth research into trafficking in New Zealand meant no one really knew how prevalent the crime was, and opinions and estimates varied widely.

Digital trafficking

Ecpat Child Alert NZ chief executive Warren Ferdinandus said sexual predators were targeting children and youth on social mobile app Yubo, formerly known as Yellow.

The site was dubbed "Tinder for Teens" by the BBC, likening it to online dating app Tinder, and hundreds of parents across the United States had tried to get the app discontinued from app stores.

The app had reportedly been used by kids to share nude photos with strangers with no way to verify age.

"There is often an exchange of something happening... goods, money, affection," Ferdinandus said.

"There is definitely a shift from a physically trafficking to a digitally trafficking of children... we should keep in mind that grooming can also be a pretext to trafficking and exploitation."

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Warren Ferdinandus, national director of ECPAT. Photo / Jason Oxenham

He added: "We, among many, certainly believe that trafficking of children does happen in New Zealand."

Internet watchdog NetSafe confirmed it had received five complaints about the app.

However spokeswoman Kimberly Burgess said the complaints were not "categorised".

Police advised anyone who was concerned for their child's safety or believed they were the victim of a crime, in person or online, to make a police report.

The police Online Child Exploitation team (OCEANZ) said they were not aware of any complaints made to police regarding Yubo.

'A hidden crime'

New Zealand was first identified as a destination country for human trafficking in 2004 by the US State Department's Trafficking in Persons report, which ranks all countries on their efforts to combat the crime annually.

It described New Zealand as a destination country "for foreign men and women subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking" and "a source country for children subjected to sex trafficking within the country".

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Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway. Photo / Doug Sherring

Foreign women from Asia were at risk of sex trafficking and some international students and temporary visa holders were vulnerable to forced labour or prostitution, it said.

New Zealand was one of 37 countries to receive a tier 1 status from the US State Department in its 2017 Trafficking in Persons report. This is given to countries whose Governments fully comply with the US Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA).

The report noted that although NZ met minimum standards, the Government did not consistently identify victims in vulnerable sectors, provide shelter services for trafficking victims, or adequately conduct campaigns to raise general awareness of human trafficking.

When asked about New Zealand's position on human trafficking over the last 12 months, acting deputy director at the US Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons Laura Rundlet said she would not make "country specific comments" before the release of this year's TIP report.

But Rundlet too acknowledged a need for more research on human trafficking which she described as a "hidden crime".

"We recognise that we need more data and research about the prevalence and root causes of human trafficking," she said.

"As well as the best practices for confronting this crime and protecting victims."

New Zealand secured its first trafficking conviction in 2016 against Faroz Ali, 46, who enticed 15 Fijian workers on false promises of $900 weekly wages for fruit picking, and was sentenced to nine years and six months in jail.

There was an estimated 40 million victims of modern slavery worldwide and the Government here had acknowledged New Zealand was not immune.

"I accept that New Zealand is not immune to these issues," Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway said.

"Human trafficking and slavery are grave violations of human rights. Crimes of this nature affect the lives of millions around the world including those in New Zealand."

Lees-Galloway said the 2015 legislation strengthened New Zealand's ability to investigate and prosecute but enforcement was a challenge.

Twenty-one investigators, many with a police background, were hired by INZ to combat top tier immigration offences, including trafficking.

Article from: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12021043