A Filipina fights for dignity after being forced into prostitution at Korean camptown bar

Posted on : 2024-03-08 16:54 KST Modified on : 2024-03-08 16:54 KST
“Marie” is one of many Filipino women who arrived in Korea under the impression she would be embarking on her singing career, only to realize she’d been sex trafficked
America Town, a neighborhood near the US air base in Gunsan, as seen in 2014 in the documentary film “Host Nation,” by Lee Ko-woon. (courtesy of Lee Ko-woon)
America Town, a neighborhood near the US air base in Gunsan, as seen in 2014 in the documentary film “Host Nation,” by Lee Ko-woon. (courtesy of Lee Ko-woon)

It was the first day that Marie (pseudonym) arrived for work at a foreigners-only club in Gyeonggi Province.
She was in her 20s at the time, and had come to South Korea to work as a singer and arrived at the club with her broker. As the night wore on, she realized that no one seemed to be getting ready to perform. Puzzled, Marie asked a woman who had arrived at the club before her when they were expected to start singing.
“We don’t perform,” the woman replied. “The stage is only there so that the club can avoid police crackdowns.” 

The club owner, who had been listening in on the two women’s conversation, offered Marie a shot of tequila.
“Your job is simple: All you have to do is talk to the man over there.”
400,000 won for four months of wages… Want money? Sell sex
This marked the beginning of Marie’s “career.” She received a pitiful 400,000 won (US$301) for her first four months of work — a far cry from the monthly salary and working conditions stipulated in her contract: 1.2 million won a month and 8-hour workdays.
It’s a typical practice for employers to not pay their foreign employees like Marie their first two to three month’s wages, citing the high cost of visa fees, airplane tickets and brokerage fees.
The owner of the club said that in order to make more money, Marie needed to accumulate “juice points.” The more drinks she managed to cajole a customer into buying, the more “juice points” she racked up. Since sexual services were a must to meet the quota, the system forced Marie and other women like her into prostitution.
Forced prostitution wasn’t the only problem Marie had to deal with. She faced unbearable verbal abuse, with vitriol ridiculing her for “not even being a virgin” being spat in her face. She asked her broker to find a different place to work, somewhere she would actually be singing. The club owner then sent her off to a different club.
But the situation only grew worse. She was only allowed to leave the club for three hours a day on weekdays. There were people monitoring her every move; she was virtually incarcerated. On top of that, she was subjected to violent swearing and 12-plus-hour workdays.
But these ordeals are not unique to Marie’s story. A report published by the non-profit lawyers’ organization Advocates for Public Interest Law, for which the group interviewed five migrant workers who came to Korea in January 2020 to work as performers, shows that they were forced into sexual exploitation in almost the exact same way as Marie.
Local recruiters in the Philippines approach young women who are facing financial hardships or have dependents, telling them that they can earn a lot of money by working as singers in restaurants, bars, and tourist hotels in South Korea. This is followed by labor contracts that depict working conditions that have no basis in reality once the women arrive in Korea.
Managers in the Philippines have the young women practice their singing, then make videos to submit to the Korea Media Rating Board of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, which then issues recommendations for the singers to perform locally in Korea. 
The performance organizers then submit an employment contract and performance recommendations to the Ministry of Justice’s immigration office to obtain E-6 visas for performing arts. But upon arriving in Korea, the women walk down the same road that Marie walked.
No questions about human trafficking
Such human trafficking pipelines have been in place in South Korea for over 20 years, with traffickers becoming more and more sophisticated with their tactics.
Club owners use the debt Filipino women incur upon arrival in Korea to extort them into prostitution. They use various methods to intimidate the women and prevent them from escaping or making reports to authorities, such as by confiscating their passports and intimidating them with bluffs about having family connections in the police or court.
“When we were first brought to the police after a crackdown, one of the police officers seemed to notice that we were victims of human trafficking. When they sent us away, they told us to run away from the club. But we didn’t know where to go or how to ask for help,”  Marie told Hankyoreh 21 in an interview. 

“Moreover, the club owner lied to us by claiming that he had bribed the police into letting us go. We gave false testimonies in the club owner’s favor because we weren’t sure if the police were helping out the owner,” she said.
And so, the women returned to the club, but the advice they were given by that one police officer to run lingered in the back of their minds. A year later, Marie and the other women working at the club eventually fled. They found refuge in a different neighborhood, but were arrested by police officers who tracked them down using cell phone location data.
This time, however, the police weren’t interested in whether Marie and her peers were victims of human trafficking. The women were cuffed and restrained. As migrant workers from the Philippines on E-6 entertainment visas, they were arrested for abandoning their workplaces and for engaging in prostitution instead of performing. They were detained at the Seoul Immigration Office for 45 days and slapped with deportation orders. 
When the situation turned dire, help came to Marie when a pastor from the Philippines helped her connect with an advocacy organization for female migrant workers and a public interest lawyer.
“At the time, we weren’t informed how long we were going to be detained,” Marie told Hankyoreh 21. “If it weren’t for the help we received from the organization and our lawyer, I can’t imagine how much longer we would’ve been stuck there.”
Blackmailed into testifying in their employer’s favor
The group’s lengthy legal journey started when they sought damages from the South Korean government, which ordered their deportation and detention.
The situation did not play out in their favor. They filed a series of administrative litigations and claims for damages in 2018 and 2020, but ultimately lost both cases.
They resorted to appealing to the UN, which came to a different conclusion than the Korean state had. 
In November 2023, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, known as CEDAW, concluded that the state party failed to identify the three Filipina women as victims of trafficking in persons and denied their right to access justice and remedies, infringing on their human rights.
While the committee asked Korea to “provide full reparation” to the victims as well as to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators of trafficking, the Ministry of Justice wrote in a written opinion that “it doubts the committee’s decision has any legal binding force or influence on the appeal for retrial.”
Kim Jong-chul, the attorney at Advocates for Public Interest Law currently representing the victims, argues that the South Korean government’s interpretation of the term “human trafficking” is faulty.
“Despite it being common knowledge that migrant workers from the Philippines on E-6 visas are easy targets for human traffickers, the Seoul Immigration Office failed to delve deeper into their investigations when determining whether the victims were to be deported or not,” Kim said. 

“This corresponds to how human trafficking is defined in the UN’s protocol for human trafficking. South Korea signed onto protocol in December 2000, which has led to the establishment of a domestic anti-human trafficking law,” he added.  
“One of the key principles here is to understand that even if the victim gave their consent when being exploited, that does not stop the act from being defined as an act of human trafficking,” the lawyer went on.

“The state puts an emphasis on how much prior knowledge people had of the situation, assuming that they knew exactly what they were walking into. Of course, situations vary. You have some who knew how things would play out, some who had vague ideas, and some who were completely hoodwinked,” he said. 

“The heart of this issue lies in the fact that, even if one ‘agrees’ to be exploited, they were put in a situation where prostitution was forced upon them and rid them of the freedom to leave that environment whenever they wanted to,” Kim said. 

Prosecutors decided to suspend their indictment of the victims on prostitution charges, saying that the women were able to go outdoors during work hours, and that none had shown any signs of protesting their conditions to the outside world before the police crackdown despite each having a mobile phone.

Seoul Administrative Court pointed to the victims’ “lack of active protest against” their boss’s demand that they sell sex and their “unwillingness to report such activity to the police” as evidence that they “tacitly complied” with their supervisors’ demands to sell sex because they “sought financial gain from prostitution.” The court therefore denied the request to cancel the deportation order. 

The Seoul Immigration Office was negligent in its duties to prevent the Filipino women from meeting their bosses or their bosses’ attorneys during their period of detention. During this time, their bosses pressured and threatened the women to give testimonies that would favor the places of business. 

Marie and two other Filipino women protested the Seoul Central District Court’s verdict on Dec. 26, 2023, that denied them compensation for the psychological damage they suffered from the Korean government’s detainment and deportation orders, citing the UN’s compensation recommendations. The women called for a retrial. 

Lack of framework to ensure rights of victims of sex trafficking

South Korea currently has no legal framework that guarantees employment and sojourn for victims of sex trafficking. This is why victims, despite knowing that they have been trafficked, simply go back to their home countries without reporting anything. In fact, some of Marie’s colleagues fled straight to the Philippines after escaping their boss. 

Lee Ko-woon, the director of “Host Nation,” a documentary about Filipinas sexually exploited in Korea, said that oftentimes, the ends of these women’s stories went unheard. 

“Most of them are quite young, so they simply go back to their home countries to start new lives. Many of them are also afraid of their identity being made public, so are reluctant to share details. While making the documentary, many of the victims asked us to not publish or broadcast their stories,” Lee shared. 

It’s also difficult to legally punish businesses that sexually or psychologically abuse Filipino women, something the authorities seem lackadaisical about. 

“The guy who victimized Marie is still operating his business,” said Kim Jong-chul, the victim’s legal representative. 

“He’s even trying to sue them for calumny and fraud.” 

By Son Go-woon, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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