Inside the Sex Trade
Trafficking in foreign prostitutes is one of the fastest-growing illicit activities in the world. Welcome to a hidden Canada — and lives of quiet desperation.
December 03, 2001
Carole's face looks too young and innocent for the setting: a dingy, dimly lit massage parlour in downtown Toronto. Dressed casually in dark slacks and a sweatshirt, her shoulder-length black hair worn loose, she greets customers with a warm and welcoming smile. Yet Carole's soft Thai features belie her age -- 30 -- and conceal a life of abuse and degradation. In the past three years, she has worked unhappily in the massage parlour, illicitly performing sexual acts. "The customers pay money, so they do what they want," she says in a heavy accent. "They don't treat you like wives. Sometimes they want to be beaten. Sometimes they want to beat you."
Those horrors pale in comparison to her past experiences. When Carole was 16 and still a virgin, her aunt took her from her village home in Thailand to Japan and sold her to a brothel owner. The next year, Carole was thrown from a Tokyo apartment balcony after refusing to have sex with one of her bosses. She suffered a cracked skull and spent two months in hospital. She was subsequently able to escape prostitution for a few years and start a family. But extreme poverty forced her to re-enter the trade in 1993.
A recruiter for the sex industry encouraged her to come to Canada, where he said she'd be able to work independently and earn a lot of money. When she arrived, however, her passport and visitor's visa were taken away and she was sold to a Vietnamese crime syndicate. For two months, she was confined to a Toronto apartment and forced to turn tricks. "I was frightened all the time," says Carole, who asked that her real name not be used. "If the Mafia like you and you don't want to sleep with them, they beat you up. There is a lot of violence, but they get away with it." She escaped her Vietnamese captors with the help of a client she eventually married. But unemployment and a crumbling marriage forced her to re-enter the sex business in 1998.
Not far away, in the west end of Toronto, Terri, a 24-year-old from Hungary, sips beer and smokes cigarettes in a trendy pub. As with Carole, Terri's outward ease and charm mask a sordid life. In 1998, the young woman -- university-educated but out of work -- responded to an advertisement in a popular Budapest employment magazine. The ad said a Canadian family was looking for a Hungarian-speaking nanny. "I met with this woman in Budapest who said her company wanted to hire me," says Terri, also a pseudonym. "She knew exactly where to take the conversation. She asked me for information about my life, like what does my mom do and can we take her address in case of an emergency. I was very naive and open."
Upon her arrival in Toronto, Terri's job description changed drastically. There was no nanny position. Instead, the diminutive redhead was whisked off to a west-end strip club and asked to perform risque dances onstage and illegal acts in the "VIP" private rooms. Her employers took her passport and work permit so she couldn't leave the country and held back her tips and wages, saying she owed them $1,600 a week for securing her employment. A bodyguard escorted Terri from the club to the hotel room she shared with other Eastern European women. She was fed nothing but egg- salad sandwiches and was raped by one of her bosses, who threatened to harm her family in Budapest if she didn't comply. After six weeks of this existence, Terri ran away with the help of the strip club's DJ, and now works as a waitress while she waits to testify in court against one of her former bosses. "Do I live in fear?" she asks. "Not anymore. Now I live with depression. My life has been taken away and I can never get it back."
Carole and Terri have never met and they come from opposite ends of the earth. But in Canada, they have lived parallel lives. Both are victims of the murky underground trade in women brought here from poorer nations to work as prostitutes and strippers. Police, who say the numbers have increased sharply over the past decade, blame organized crime networks for wooing the women with elaborate stories of better lives, then putting them to work in strip clubs, escort agencies, massage parlours and brothels.
Sometimes the women are willing participants, selling themselves in the hopes of establishing a better life, or making enough money to help their families back home. More often than not, however, they are like Carole and Terri, duped into a hell of extortion, abuse and intimidation. "These women find themselves caught in a web of organized crime when they come to Canada," says Hedy Fry, the secretary of state for multiculturalism and the status of women. "They are bought and sold and moved around. They are bound into this cycle of fear and abuse."
What is happening is, sadly, not unusual. According to the United Nations Development Fund for Women, as many as 1.5 million women and children are sold into the international sex trade each year. They are lured from the broken economies of former Eastern Bloc nations and out of poverty in developing world countries by transnational criminal syndicates. Trafficking for prostitution is considered one of the fastest-growing illicit activities in the world, netting its overlords an estimated $12 billion a year. "This is a great way to make money and organized crime knows it," says RCMP Insp. Steve Martin, head of the force's immigration and passport section in southern Ontario. "With a drug product, you use it and it is gone. With prostitutes, there are residual profits. You can resell them over and over again."
Although there are no hard statistics, experts estimate that thousands of women are brought to Canada every year to work in the sex trade - - an industry worth some $400 million annually. Often, the prostitutes come to the country legally, on visitor, student or work visas secured by the crime syndicates. Moreover, organized crime rings use Canada as a transit point for shipping foreign sex workers into the United States.
Last March, the RCMP infiltrated a multimillion-dollar prostitution ring in southern Ontario that smuggled as many as 280 Korean women into Michigan over a four-month period. The women, who were sent to massage parlours and other establishments in a number of American cities, including Los Angeles and New York, were transported across the border in vans or in boats over the St. Clair River near Sarnia. In mid-November, the kingpin of the outfit, a 52- year-old Toronto man named Kyeong Hwan Min, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate U.S. immigration laws and received a four-year sentence; four others have also pleaded guilty and 15 are still being tried. It is believed the cartel had been operating since the early 1990s and may have smuggled as many as 1,200 Korean and Chinese citizens into the United States in 2000 alone.
A year ago, Canada signed the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, and politicians committed themselves to implementing laws to combat the sex trade. On Nov. 1, the federal government passed into law Bill C-11, amending the Immigration Act to include fines of up to $1 million and the possibility of life in prison for the trafficking of people in general. While it's a positive step, some legal experts feel Ottawa should go further -- targeting such harsh measures directly at the illegal sex trade. "To have teeth and deterrence, trafficking for the purposes of prostitution needs to be reflected in the Criminal Code so that traffickers can be hit with offences that fit the crime," says Calvin Barry, a Toronto Crown attorney who has worked on numerous cases involving the migrant sex trade.
Under the Criminal Code now, pimps and organized crime rings breach the law if they procure a sex worker or operate a place of prostitution, referred to as a "common bawdy house." But in cases brought to court, these crimes are treated relatively leniently, according to Barry. He has yet to see any of the ringleaders he has prosecuted serve jail time or pay more than a $15,000 fine -- a slap on the wrist for many sex trade operators who make thousands of dollars a night from just a few trafficked women. "Right now, there is no real deterrence," says Barry. "We need to be able to seize the proceeds of crime from people who have been convicted, and wipe out their businesses once and for all."
For a trafficking case to stick, foreign prostitutes generally have to testify against their bosses. But under threat of violence, to themselves and sometimes their families back home, they are too frightened to speak up. (Canadian immigration officials often deport the workers before they have a chance to change their minds.) "These women face a double-edged sword," says Jacqueline An, a defence lawyer who has worked with Korean prostitutes. "If they work with police, the lives of their families back home are in jeopardy. If they don't, they suffer in silence. They're screwed either way, while the real criminals, their traffickers, go free."
This happened in October, when an undercover operation unearthed a prostitution ring importing Malaysian females into Vancouver. Eleven women, ranging in age from 17 to 30, were found living and working in two apartments furnished only with mattresses. At least five of them believed they were coming to Canada on a vacation with a "boyfriend," in reality a recruiter who only pretended to care for them. When the women arrived, their passports were taken and they were each made to have sex with as many as 15 men an evening. Punishing any of the organizers is unlikely, though -- none of the women would testify, and they were deported. "We have to ask ourselves, do we want Canada to be known as a place where people can get sex for cheap?" asks Barry. "A lot of abuse takes place in this trade. It is organized crime at the highest level -- and it has infiltrated this country."
It's midnight on a crisp, clear evening in Toronto. The normally busy street by a popular downtown strip club is dark and empty, except for a taxi that waits with its lights off and a few male patrons, whistling and jeering as they leave. Michael, a strongly built graphic designer, walks up to the doorman and asks if there are VIP rooms available. He also inquires if the establishment has any foreign women, preferably young Asians, who can join him. (One former manager of the club is currently in court fighting several prostitution-related charges involving foreign women.) The bouncer says they can fulfil Michael's request.
Michael is escorted inside, to join a standing-room-only crowd. The lights are low, except for those onstage trained on a buxom, blond Caucasian woman dancing nude to the pounding beat of Bootylicious by Destiny's Child. Michael finds a vacant chair at the back of the room; after a few drinks a curvaceous brunette comes to meet him. She says her name is Anna and that she is from Brazil. In broken English, she tells Michael she is a gypsy and has been in Canada for less than three months. "I miss home," the twentysomething woman says after a while. "I have a boyfriend I want to see," she adds, all the while performing a lap dance -- a personal strip act involving genital contact that Toronto has declared illegal. The doorman, standing some 12 feet away, never takes his eyes off the scene. Every now and then, he gives Anna an encouraging nod.
Anna stays with Michael for about 15 minutes. Then Janet, a petite Asian woman wearing a short brown Lycra cocktail dress, walks over. Janet, who says she is 23, escorts Michael upstairs. They find a vacant cubicle; once inside, Janet takes off her clothes and awkwardly dances to the top 40s music being played downstairs. She mechanically thrusts her hips forward and then backward with a far- off stare in her eyes. Michael encourages her to slow down and talk about herself.
Janet says an uncle brought her to Canada from Shanghai with another Chinese girl. She sheepishly adds that she doesn't really like what she does. Almost all the girls at the club, she tells Michael, are foreign -- at least 20 are from South America and 15 from Asia, she says. When she learns Michael is a graphic artist, her spirits pick up. Janet says she studied graphic design at university in China. She writes Michael's telephone number on the back of a business card. "Please don't tell anyone I did this," she says, whispering, "but I want to call you about leaving the business."
Migrant sex workers began streaming into southern Ontario strip clubs in the late 1990s after Human Resources and Development Canada ruled in April, 1998, that non-citizens working as exotic dancers do not displace Canadian workers. To fill the demand in the occupation, immigration authorities began issuing foreigners temporary work permits under the "busker" employment category, which includes clowns, magicians and puppeteers, as well as exotic dancers. Although Citizenship and Immigration Canada doesn't keep statistics on the number of people who have come to Canada specifically as exotic dancers, it reports that in 1998, 268 women entered Canada with busker work permits. By 2000, that figure had nearly doubled.
While it was assumed that women utilizing Canada's new work policy would choose to do so freely, it quickly became apparent that this wasn't always the case. In a Toronto police investigation that ended last fall, dozens of Eastern European women with valid employment permits were found working in strip clubs -- including VIP rooms where police investigations have shown that prostitution often takes place. Yet some of the women reported being tricked into the trade after responding to advertisements for babysitters, waitresses or models.
Their bosses usually took care of the employment permits, they said, even though immigration regulations require that the worker apply in person and prove previous experience as a stripper. The majority of the women said they never met with Canadian immigration officials in their home country. And although some of the work permits did say they were coming to Canada as exotic dancers, the women couldn't read the French or English in which they were written. By the time they found out, they were already in Canada, under close watch by those who were for all intents and purposes their captors.
During the investigation, dubbed Project Almonzo, hundreds of prostitution-related charges were laid against strippers and club operators. While the minister of citizenship and immigration, Elinor Caplan, did not respond to Maclean's requests for an interview, Sandy MacDonald, director of Human Resources' foreign worker program, admits there are problems. "The last thing we want is for the temporary worker program to be used for illicit purposes," says MacDonald. "It is under review."
Many of the women involved in Almonzo told police horrific stories of working under enslaved and abusive conditions. Among them was Terri, whose family had been threatened if she tried to run away -- and who had good reason to believe that threat. She recalls an incident in her hotel room when another dancer said she was going to the police. Before being ordered out of the room, Terri saw the handlers, carrying baseball bats, strip the woman and put her under a cold shower. "We were all talking about leaving, but you don't say that to the agents," says Terri. "They didn't hit her in front of us. They just ripped off her clothes and raped her. I asked them where she went and I was told they had driven her to the airport. I asked again a few days later, and I was told she wasn't breathing anymore."
When Terri escaped, the Hungarian agents went to her brother's Budapest apartment on two occasions, demanding that he pay them $3,000. Terri, without a passport and looking for help, turned herself in to Canadian authorities. She is currently testifying at the sexual assault trial of her boss, who she alleges raped her. Due to later testify in the trafficking case against him as well, she intends to apply to remain in Canada as a landed immigrant, fearing for her safety should she return home. "I was told by the Hungarian police that the people who brought me here are involved with guns and drugs from Russia," says Terri. "They told me how big this thing was. Then they said they couldn't protect me."
Penny's 1996 diary is haunting. Printed on the first page is the word "memories." Beside it is the drawing of two hearts, beside that the message "I love you" with Penny's and a man's name scribbled below. Turn the page and the sweetness turns sour. The diary quickly becomes a ledger of all the tricks the then-20-year-old turned in a three-month period. According to the diary, there were only 11 days she didn't work. In all, she serviced more than 160 clients -- sometimes as many as nine a night -- earning more than $18,000. She was halfway to buying her freedom when she ran away with the help of a customer, a man she eventually married.
Penny, whose identity is concealed by a court-ordered publication ban, grew up in a very poor family in rural Thailand. One day, a Chinese woman came to her village and offered her a new life. Penny admits she had a feeling she was coming to Canada to be a prostitute. All she was told at the time, however, was that she would be working. Her family was so destitute she wanted to believe the recruiter, who told her she would be safe and make lots of money to support her loved ones. The recruiter paid for the airfare and escorted Penny to Toronto, where she was taken to nearby Barrie to live with a Thai family. They seized her passport; for nearly two weeks, Penny overheard them bartering for her sale on the phone with brothels.
The owners of a west-end Toronto massage parlour eventually made a successful bid. When they came to fetch Penny, they told her they had purchased her for $15,000 and that she had to serve 350 patrons to pay off the debt before her passport could be returned and she could keep a portion of the fees for herself. Penny, who lived with her pimps, managed to escape and leave the trade. Another trafficked sex worker from Thailand encouraged her to go to the police and in June, the massage parlour operators, Douang (Rose) Charatsengroungreuan and Nirandon Nabangxang, were convicted by a jury of a number of prostitution-related offences. Their sentences were pitiful, however: 12 months, to be served in their home.
Penny has one thing in common with nearly every woman who is trafficked: a background of extreme poverty and little hope. Add to that an expanding market for foreign sexual services -- as people in Western nations have become wealthier, fewer are willing to do certain forms of employment, like sewing in factories or sex work. "What we are seeing is trafficking to fill these gaps," says Noeleen Heyzer, executive director of the UN Development Fund for Women. "Trafficking for labour in the service sectors, including sweatshops, trafficking for domestic help and trafficking for sex."
The developing world has been the traditional source. But the collapse of the Communist Bloc and the subsequent economic upheaval in Eastern Europe during the 1990s opened up even more markets from which traffickers could choose potential new sex workers. According to a 1997 report by the Global Survival Network, 80 per cent of women in this region have been laid off or fired due to downsizing and economic shifts. Seventy per cent of female university graduates can't find jobs. The UN's Children's Fund reported in 1999 that in Vienna, about 3,000 Eastern European women compete for work with 600 local prostitutes. In Italy, experts say, thousands of Ukrainian women are working as prostitutes. "The answer is simple -- these women need other means of income," says psychologist Beth Hedva, an expert on sexual behaviour and author of Betrayal, Trust and Forgiveness. "We need a more equitable global community. What we are seeing now is not just the exploitation of sex, but the exploitation of humanity."
Carole's dark brown eyes are downcast. She has just finished drinking a mango juice at a trendy Toronto Thai restaurant and is looking at photographs of her two daughters, who live in Thailand with their grandmother. "I miss them so much," says Carole. In one picture, the girls, aged 10 and 6, are wearing soft pink and red cotton dresses for the Buddhist new year celebration. They are smiling, peering out at their mother from the small wallet-size photo. "My children are what I live for," she adds. "I will do anything to make sure they never end up where I am."
Carole is surprisingly optimistic about the future, despite the hardships she continues to endure. Three years ago, she chose to re- enter the sex trade when she couldn't find legitimate work in Canada or Thailand to support her family. She sent the girls to live with her mother, and went to work for a private business owned by a Chinese woman who allows Carole to keep a substantial portion of her earnings. After paying her monthly living expenses, Carole sends whatever is left home -- perhaps $400 one month, as much as $1,000 in another.
She wants to remain in Canada and eventually raise her children here. Her youngest daughter was born in Toronto, and Carole says there are many more opportunities for her girls in this country. "I'd like to own a corner store or a small supermarket and watch my children go to school and grow," she says. "I want a real job, a real life, and I want my daughters to have the same." For now, these dreams of better days ahead keep Carole going, in a sordid trade from which there has so far been no escape.
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