Illegal brothels are flourishing in Melbourne and the authorities are struggling to stop them.
SHE had signed up to work in a brothel. But when Jessica arrived in Australia from south-east Asia, the young mother didn’t expect that her passport would be confiscated or that she would have to work off a debt to her traffickers. She didn’t know that she would have to live inside the brothel, on-call 24-hours a day, forced to have unprotected sex with countless men.
If she had, she says, she would have continued working at the brothel in her home country, where she was barely earning enough to pay off rising medical bills.
“They said it would be the same as in my country,” Jessica recalls. “They said it was safe. But I had to do everything. All of this with no condoms.”
Jessica had a valid student visa when she arrived. It had been arranged by the traffickers who were well aware of Australian laws that allow international students to earn a living as sex workers.
After receiving directions via a payphone at the airport and parting ways with the young women she travelled with, Jessica made her way to a legal inner-city brothel. When she arrived she gave $1000 the trafficker had given her to the brothel owner; a transaction she now believes was a finder’s fee payment. She was then forced to sign a contract that would effectively have her working as a sex slave for the next three months.
Jessica is now safe, but her story is not uncommon. The federal government’s Support For Trafficked People program has assisted 191 people since 2004, the majority of whom were forced into the sex industry.
But due to the nature of sex slavery, the number of women trafficked to Melbourne and Sydney’s inner-city and suburban brothels is likely to be much higher. Melbourne support group for women in the sex industry, Project Respect, has supported 20 trafficked women in the past 12 months.
Executive director Kelly Hinton suspects many more women who have come through her doors were also trafficked. “This is trafficking for the purpose of exploitation,” she says, adding that Jessica was tricked into harsh conditions and forced to sign a contract. “She was in debt and wasn’t allowed to use condoms and she could never decline to do a service because once she signed the contract she thought she had no rights.”
Two weeks ago, officers from Victoria Police’s newly-formed Sex Industry Co-ordination Unit (SICU) swooped on a business in Melbourne’s south-east. The taskforce was established on February 29 to coincide with legislative changes that made police the lead agency for investigations into the multi-million dollar illegal prostitution industry.
They charged a 66-year-old Bentleigh woman and a 64-year-old Ormond woman with forcing a child to have sex for money. The business was one of about 100 licensed brothels in the state. The legal sex industry estimates there are 300-400 unlicensed brothels across Victoria with links to human trafficking, tax evasion and organised crime.
Government corruption has also been a problem. City of Yarra planning enforcement co-ordinator Ken Wolfe last year pleaded guilty to taking more than $130,000 in bribes from illegal brothel operators. It was Wolfe’s job to enforce sex laws and shut down illegal brothels from Fitzroy to Richmond. An enforcement officer from Darebin council was also stood down in 2011 after it was revealed that he was involved in the illegal sex trade.
According to a Productivity Commission report released last month, local councils responsible for brothel planning, zoning and workplace health and safety, continue to identify illegal brothels and co-ordinate further enforcement with state and federal government agencies. The job of investigating illegal brothels has traditionally been split between councils, local and federal police, consumer affairs and the tax and immigration departments.
Port Phillip council conducted eight investigations into illegal and legal brothels in the 2011-12 financial year. Three legal brothels were found to be breaching their permits and the council pursued two cases at the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal. Echoing the findings in the report, Port Phillip council and the Australian Adult Entertainment Industry, the body that represents Victoria’s legal brothels, want police to take a more active role in the crackdown against illegal brothels.
Port Phillip mayor Rachel Powning said council officers continued to investigate illegal brothels before referring them to the police. “Police are better positioned to investigate and pursue allegations around illegal brothels due to the broader issues such as criminal activity and other related offences,” Cr Powning said.
“Any action taken under planning legislation for illegal land use generally results in an operator moving to another premise.”
Under local laws, councils have the power to prohibit the use of a premises where an illegal brothel is run for up to three months. But the legal sex industry claims this does nothing to deter illegal brothel operators who easily set up shop somewhere else.
AAEI spokesman William Albon commended Port Phillip council on its work against illegal brothels but conceded local laws were too restrictive. “Regrettably, the council can only use planning law and go after the owners of the land where the illegal brothel is sited,” he said. “Rarely is the owner of the land the illegal brothel operator.”
Since it was set up, SICU has investigated three illegal brothels. One of them is located in the City of Port Phillip, where South Melbourne has 10 per cent of Victoria’s licensed brothels.
However, the taskforce has failed to identify a new breed of brothel, which began promoting its prostitution racket through website Sweetybabe.net.
Sweetybabe clients access photo galleries and descriptions of sex workers “available today”, who are promoted as a mix of students, office ladies and clubbing girls in their late teens and early 20s. The website details the sex services provided and costs, starting at $350 an hour. Contact with the brothel operator is made via a 24-hour customer service hotline or Chinese social networking website QQ.
The illegal brothel employs at least 19 sex workers and was set up the day before SICU launched. Six new sex workers have been promoted online in the past week.
The racket, allegedly run by a Chinese syndicate that has spread from the suburbs to inner-city hotels, has recently made inroads across state borders to Sydney, Adelaide and Perth. A mobile phone app to complement the website is under construction.
Victoria Police Inspector Trevor Cornwill, who lead SICU until last week, said the taskforce was not investigating any brothels operating out of Melbourne hotels or Sweetybabe.net. “We are investigating one illegal brothel in Melbourne CBD based at a fixed address,” he said. “We haven’t looked at any hotels.”
Asked whether he suspected an illegal brothel was running out of Melbourne hotels, Inspector Cornwill said he wouldn’t be surprised. “Yes, it’s possible because these illegal brothels are quite fluid in that they’ll set up in one place and then move to another place. It wouldn’t surprise me at all.”
Sweetybabe clients are not told which hotel will be used until the day of the rendezvous; they are typically met by staff in the hotel lobby and given a key pass to access the elevators and hotel room. In some cases the illegal brothel operator uses one hotel room as a reception area, showing clients a line-up of sex workers and providing pre-booked rooms.
A customer who attended the mobile brothel operating out of rooms at Crown Towers on four occasions since March said he was offered sex each time and told he could request different women. He was asked to pay $350 an hour or $550 for two hours in return for sexual services.
The customer attended West Melbourne’s Flagstaff City hotel last month, where he was introduced to five women who were providing sex services out of two rooms. He was also offered sex at the Grand Chancellor in June.
In a members-only forum on Chinese dating website CatchGod, another client of the mobile brothel described his encounter with a Sweetybabe sex worker at Crown. He wrote that the sex worker charged $350 an hour for sexual services without a condom. “It’s worth the money,” he wrote. “This weekend I’m very satisfied. Thanks to the Sweety girls for providing a high-quality girl.”
The hotels have denied any knowledge of brothel activity.
Sex industry sources say they are concerned that the new police taskforce is too focused on illegal brothels operating in the suburbs to shut down the mobile brothel operating in the city. The owner of one of Port Phillip’s 12 legal brothels, who asked not to be named, was doubtful a small team of police officers could effectively crack down on operators. “I’ve heard about the new team, but there are not enough of them,” the owner said. “The problem is so big – illegal brothels are booming.”
One former brothel manager said he knew many Chinese sex workers who quit their jobs in legal brothels to work for the mobile syndicate. He said the women earned more money working for the mobile brothel because the customers, mostly young Chinese students, were prepared to pay more to avoid going to street-front brothels.
Since 2009 there has been a push to introduce signs in the reception area and all rooms of legal brothels that describe what sex slavery is and provide the phone numbers of local and federal police. However, unless the signs are displayed in languages other than English and unless the state government is on board, critics argue they will be useless.
Through an interpreter, Jessica said she was forced to sign a contract when she arrived in Australia. She believed she was not allowed to leave the brothel and with no understanding of local laws, she went to work.
“When a customer came in we all came out from the room and line up.” Jessica said she paid a cut of her wage to the brothel owner, the trafficker and the Malaysian agent who recruited her. Along with the Malaysian, Chinese and Korean women she lived with, some who were also trafficked, Jessica was available for sex 24-hours a day, seven days a week before she finally escaped.
(Jessica’s name has been changed)