On Sept. 9, the day she arrived in South Korea, Tessa Aquino could not help but cry. The 26-year-old from the Philippines had left her home country for the first time in hopes of becoming a singer and supporting her 3-month-old daughter.
She started working the day she arrived in Korea, at a club near a U.S. military base in Dongducheon, Gyeonggi Province. As an E-6-2 entertainment visa holder, Aquino thought she’d be singing at the club full time. But instead, she was forced to wear a revealing dress and “talk” to customers so they would purchase as many drinks as possible. The customers kept touching her against her will, but her boss simply said, “That’s what everyone has to deal with here.”
From that day until she ran away with her colleagues in March, Aquino and her seven colleagues worked 12 hours daily, from 6:30 p.m. till 7 a.m. the next morning. Their Korean boss, whom they called “Papa,” held their passports, as well as their first two months of pay.
They were eventually arrested on sex trade charges and detained after receiving deportation orders.
Starting their third month, the women were each paid 400,000 won ($360) monthly. One of the women was never paid at all. During the day when they were not working, the women were locked in their rooms and needed permission to go out.
“We would take turns and eat in the bathroom,” Aquino, who is filing a lawsuit against her boss, told The Korea Herald at a women’s shelter.
But nothing was worse than being forced to provide sexual services to their customers, when one of them couldn’t sell 660,000 won of drinks in a week.
Often they would be forced by their boss to perform sexual acts in the club, or even agree to a “bar fine,” which meant going out with a customer away from the club for sex. Most of their customers were foreign laborers, many from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Thailand and Turkey, although the club initially started as an exclusive place for American soldiers.
“I’d just volunteer to touch (the customers) because it was better to touch than being touched,” she said.
Controversial E-6 Visa
Aquino, who currently stays at a shelter with three of her colleagues, is one of some 4,500 foreign workers who arrive in Korea with the notorious E-6 Entertainment Visa each year.
The visa is issued to foreign athletes and dancers and singers who wish to work in tourist hotels, bars and clubs in Korea. Yet according to last year’s survey by the National Human Rights Commission, 70 percent of female E-6 holders have experienced sexual abuse at least once during their stay here. Many of them become victims of sex trafficking.
In spite of the visa’s reputation, the number of E-6 holders increased from 4,246 in 2011 to 4,940 in 2013. The number of E-6 visa holders who eventually became illegal immigrants has risen as well, from 1,446 to 1,504. The government estimates that about 70 percent of the current E-6 holders are from the Philippines.
For Aquino, Korea was a land of opportunities. Back home in Cagayan de Oro, she worked as a telemarketer while singing part time for events such as weddings.
Aquino, who holds a degree in hotel management, earned about 250,000 won a month. It sounded promising to go to Korea and sing full time. That way, she could support her 3-month-old daughter better, she thought.
After a few sessions with brokers and singing in front of officers at the Korean consulate to “prove her vocal skills,” she left her baby to her ex-boyfriend to move to Korea.
Before leaving the Philippines, without telling her why, her brokers deftly glued together two pages of her passport, hiding her E-6 visa before they took two layovers in Iloilo, in the Philippines, and Hong Kong.
“I asked them why we aren’t taking a direct flight to Seoul, and they just said because it’s cheaper to (take multiple flights),” Aquino said.
It was only after she came to Korea that Aquino learned about the existence of the Overseas Employment Certificate issued by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration. Under current Filipino laws, those who have obtained an E-6 visa from the Korean government must obtain the OEC in order to leave the Philippines.
Those with the E-6 but without the OEC are banned from leaving the Philippines at all international ports in the country. Getting an E-6 visa from the Korean authorities without an OEC, however, is no problem.
“Many brokers use a simple trick of sticking two passport pages together at the airport in the Philippines,” said Kim Jong-chul, a lawyer who represents Aquino and her colleagues.
It is believed to be a frequently used tactic by the brokers to fly out with the women in the Philippines as tourists, thereby not needing an OEC, and then enter Korea with an E-6 visa.
“I believe the OEC is only issued when the government of the Philippines has verified that the Korean workplace is safe and legitimate after an inspection by their Seoul-based officers. I think the Filipino government is working hard to protect its citizens, but it should work with its Korean counterpart so such brokers can’t maneuver around the system so easily,” said Kim.
None of the four women staying at the shelter said they knew anything about the OEC before leaving the Philippines.
Trisha Ramos, one of the four, still remembers the moment that made her feel utterly helpless while staying at the detention center.
“I called the Embassy of the Philippines (in Seoul) for help,” she said.
“They said they cannot help me because I’m illegal ― because I don’t have the OEC.”
Abuse after abuse
When one of the customers offered Anne Navarro a job opportunity in January, she like felt she had nothing to lose. The 23-year-old had been working at the club since October, and had just been forced to do her first “bar fine.” Whenever she and her colleagues refused to do sex work, their boss would verbally abuse them with explicit words, or threaten to “take you and bury you in the mountains.”
The customer was a worker from Sri Lanka who was at first kind to Navarro. One day in January, he told her he would arrange a job interview for her once Navarro moved in with him. When she did, he changed completely, locked her in his house and physically abused her. Navarro’s boss eventually tracked her down, took her back and told her she now had to work for free as she damaged his business by running away.
From October until March, Navarro was never paid.
Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan man held a grudge against Navarro’s Korean boss, who sued him for kidnapping Navarro. As a regular visitor to the club, he knew well about the illegal sex services that were happening behind doors. In revenge, he reported Navarro’s boss to the police for violating the country’s antiprostitution laws.
On March 2, police officers visited the club and encountered the women. But the women had already been trained by the boss to say certain things to the police. That day, the women denied being forced to offer sex. They, however, managed to get their passports back from the boss through the police.
“(The boss) said if we reported him to the police, it would only put us in trouble. I didn’t know anyone (in Korea) and I had no one to trust. I didn’t know if I should trust the officers (either), especially when my boss was right beside me when I was asked with questions,” said Aquino.
On March 9, with their regained passports, the women ran away from the club. The police managed to track down closed-circuit television footage of the women providing sexual services. The women were all eventually arrested in early April under illegal sex trade charges. Soon after, Ramos went back to the club in handcuffs with the officers and showed them where the illegal sex services took place.
“I was with my boyfriend when I was being arrested,” said Ramos, who still has nightmares about the experience. “He kept asking the officers if I could hire a lawyer. They said no and just took me away.”
Detention center and second trauma
Mia Mendoza was admitted to Hwaseong Detention Center in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi Province, on April 7, after receiving a deportation order along with Aquino and Navarro. Ramos joined them two days later.
The facility is where foreign nationals who have been ordered to leave the country stay. Refugee applicants stay there, too. Most people are deported after two to three months. But sometimes the wait can take years.
Until they met their lawyer Kim, who was provided by a nongovernmental organization, they had been sharing a single bar of soap with 15 other detainees and only eating eggs and kimchi, while being required to sit straight and only watch TV from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m.
After several grueling weeks, the women were released from the center on May 20 and were granted permission to stay in the country until their appeal against the deportation order was completed. Still, the women are soon to be indicted on charges of illegal sex trade by the prosecution.
“Once they are indicted, they will have to relive the first trauma all over again (as they’ll have to testify during the trials),” said Kim.
“The biggest problem right now is that the prosecutor doesn’t identify the women as victims, and never recognized that they may have been coerced or forced into such situations.”
Unlike the prosecution in Korea, Kim said, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement uses its “trafficking indicators” to identify and rescue trafficking victims. The indicators include: “Is the victim in possession of identification and travel documents?” and “Was the victim coached on what to say to law enforcement and immigration officials?” Another indicator states: “Has the victim been threatened with harm if the victim attempts to escape?”
The women are filing charges against their boss and the Korean man who arranged for their trip to Korea for human trafficking and forcing them into sex work. Kim is also reporting their case to the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.
He said the police and the Korea Immigration Service failed to acknowledge the women as potential trafficking victims, only recognizing them as foreign criminals.
Those who receive the deportation order are required to be detained, while those who are banned from leaving the country cannot go overseas until permission is granted. Kim said this was a convenient way to practically imprison them indefinitely, so they can investigate the case without having to worry about them escaping.
“They had to be protected, not detained, while facing deportation orders,” he said. “And they can only be truly protected when they stay here until they see justice done. At the same time, they have the right to pursue their lawsuit without being detained. If they are deported, they will have to live with this trauma forever.”
‘What’s illegal is illegal’
Park Jong-cheol, a lieutenant at the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, is one of the officers who dealt with the case of the four women. In response to Kim’s accusations, Park said if the women spoke honestly on March 2, the day the first investigation took place, the police wouldn’t have arrested them. He said he is unsure if the women indeed had been planning to return to the Philippines after running away from the club.
Park stressed the women’s status had already been illegal from the minute they escaped the club, as it is legally banned for E-6 holders to leave their workplace without reporting to their employer.
“As an investigator it’s your job to question everything. Literally everything,” he said. “You can’t assume everything your suspects tell you is true.”
He said the women told him during the investigation that the last thing they wanted was to be sent back to the Philippines. The officer said he has seen many female foreign workers stay in Korea as illegal residents as long as they can ― practically until they get caught ― to make money to support their families back home.
“I think the main issue was the money,” he said. “It seemed like they were the breadwinners of their families back home. But whatever the motives and reasons are, what’s illegal is illegal. Some people say it’s harsh, but jobs like mine need to follow the rules.”
Combating modern slavery
Last year, South Korea ranked 49th in the Global Slavery Index, in terms of people in modern slavery in absolute numbers, among 167 countries released by Australia’s Walk Free Foundation.
According to the report, some 93,700 people are estimated to be trapped in modern slavery ― such as human trafficking, debt bondage, sex slavery and forced migration or marriage ― in the country.
Poverty is known to be among several factors contributing to the commercial exploitation of people for both cheap labor and the sex industry in Asia, as well as forced migration and human trafficking.
All of the four women, all in their early or mid-20s, were never married but had children to support back home, on top of their parents and siblings. Every month, Aquino would send 250,000 won out of her 400,000 won of monthly pay to her family and her ex, who raises their daughter alone in the Philippines.
Mendoza would also wire 200,000 won to her family every month. It was half of her exploited salary, but it would still be more than her four-member family’s household income back home.
Korea’s stipulated minimum wage is 5,580 won, meaning the women should have been paid at least 1.34 million won a month by their employer for working 12 hours daily and five days a week.
Park Mi-hyung, head of the International Organization for Migration’s Seoul office, said government officials, especially those who work in the immigration office, should be educated on victim identification, especially when giving out deportation orders to foreign laborers. She also said the authorities should have a fundamental debate on whether or not the E-6 visa should continue to exist in the face of the frequently reported cases related to human sex trafficking.
“A lot of the people who migrate to another country (to work) don’t have a lot of options back home. A lot of the times, it is their last resort to survive,” she said.
“What we need is a system where all foreign workers can arrive and work in Korea with adequate legal protection, where they can earn their wages without being exploited during their stay here.”
Aquino, who was visibly hopeful during the interview, said she still hopes to sing in Korea one day. While the women were working at the club, although initially hired as singers, they almost never performed during their stay there.
“We would only sing when we are by ourselves alone, when all of our customers are gone,” she said. “What I want is to do what I was originally told to do before coming here, to sing.”
By Claire Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org)
All names of the victims have been changed upon request.―Ed.