KASAMA Vol. 20 No. 4 / October-November-December 2006 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

IWSS Logo“Moving Beyond Rhetoric To Diversity In Practice: A Human Rights Framework To Address Violence Against Women”

Immigrant Women’s Support Service Forum — Bardon Conference Centre, Brisbane, Australia — November 9 & 10, 2006


Trafficking for Sexual Exploitation

It is only recently that the government formally acknowledged the existence of sex slavery in Australia. In the course of her work in Melbourne with Project Respect Shirley Woods has met and assisted victims of trafficking. The following is an edited transcript of her presentation.

Sex Slavery First I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land we meet on today and thank IWSS for inviting me here to speak. During this forum I’ve spoken with women who have said they are unfamiliar with Project Respect and what we do. So I’ll tell you briefly a bit about our organisation.

Kathleen Maltzahn was the founder of Project Respect in late 1998. Kathleen is an Australian woman who lived in the Philippines for about 5 years working with groups who were organising with women in street prostitution. They were going out in vans with hot coffee, condoms, pamphlets on sexual health, and that kind of thing, trying to build up relationships with the women.

When Kathleen came back to Australia she started going out on her own to brothels to talk to women and find out if they needed assistance. There was only one organisation then in Victoria - the Prostitutes Collective which is now called RhED - Resourcing Health and Education in the Sex Industry. They do some great work but there’s not much in the way of resources and in Victoria we have more than 90 legal brothels. What Kathleen discovered were the signs and symptoms of trafficking which were familiar to her because she had seen so much of it in the Philippines, and she went about lobbying government and collecting together people who felt the same way to join Project Respect.

It has taken an extremely long time for recognition that we have a problem with this in Australia. Nobody likes to think that in a first world country we have a problem with sex slavery. Up until October 2003 when Mr Philip Ruddick was still the Immigration Minister he was in complete denial that there was any such thing as sex slavery in Australia. Within 2 weeks of Ruddick leaving his position and Amanda Vanstone becoming Immigration Minister, all of a sudden there was an announcement that the Australian government would put $20 million into trying to stop trafficking in Australia. We were shocked and extremely pleased that someone was finally taking notice.

There have been some interesting things come about since that time. Part of the $20 million package was for looking into changes in legislation. One was a big change in the legislation that we are very happy about. Proving trafficking in court was extremely difficult under the old legislation because trafficking had to be proven at the point of recruitment. It meant that the women had to prove they had been trafficked back in the country they came from. The difference now in the legislation is that deceit and conditions have been included, so it’s not just about the recruitment process any more.

We have the discussion with people all the time about the fact that many women who are trafficked come here knowing that they are coming to do prostituČtion. This is true. We estimate from our research among the women we work with that 80% of the women who are trafficked into Australia, do know that they are coming here to do prostitution. What they don’t know, are the conditions that they’re going to work under —that they’re going to have to work 7 days a week, that they will have to see clients who they may not want to see, that they will have to do unsafe sex, that they’re going to share a house with 8 other women and sleep on a mattress, that they’re not going to be fed properly, they’re not going to have access to doctors. So this new part of the legislation is a real achievement.

You may not have heard that Australia had its first trafficking prosecution in June this year. The interesting thing about that prosecution was that it was under the old legislation. We really didn’t think it would happen. It was nearly 3 years from when the women were discovered in the brothel to the time that the trafficker was prosecuted. The trafficker was a woman and she got a sentence of ten years in jail and hopefully that will be a big deterrent. [1]

Speakers at this forum have talked about how different situations interlink. Ana Maria talked about interpreters. One of the problems that came up during the trafficking court case was with language. The interČpreters were good but the people working in the court system lacked understanding of the difficulty, like Christy mentioned before, about certain words or phrases not having an equivalence in English. There were also problems with the way lawyers worded things, like starting a question with the words, “Did you not…”. The average English speaker has to stop and think about, “Did you not,” let alone trying to put that into another language. And if the women didn’t understand and kept asking for the question to be repeated, they were seen as just trying to be devious. Or if they didn’t understand the question but later on did work it out and changed their testimony, they were seen as being liars. There were all sorts of problems with the lack of understanding about the differences between the languages and how some words don’t translate easily.

This morning Sasi was talking about the power of images. When it comes to reporting trafficking, I think there’s a lot of media sensation. Media grab hold of it and have “Sex Slave” splashed all over the front page and many people have a very limited understanding of sex slavery. There was a policeman in Victoria who actually said, “When I walked into the brothel, I didn’t see them tied up to the bed.” Because the media shows an image of a woman with her hands tied, there’s this idea in people’s minds that if a woman is sitting in a brothel in her lingerie waiting for her next customer to walk in and she’s having a cup of coffee, then she’s not a sex slave. I know many of you at this forum are familiar with psychological abuse and understand that if a woman is not tied to a bed it means that she wants to be there. A lot of these women have had their families threatened, their own lives threatened, the traffickers tell them they will send pornographic photographs home to their families – the threats are so incredible that they don’t need to tie them to a bed, the psychological threat is enough. But, images can be extremely powerful and we all get sucked in a little bit by the media.

The other thing that often comes up is the fact that many of the women do know what they’re coming here for. To illustrate the point I’m making, I’d like to put to you a hypoČthetical situation: I’m going to offer you a job working Monday to Friday, 7 hours a day, no weekends, you’ll be earning 80,000 Australian dollars a year and have a company car. Does that sound good? Can you start on Monday? But, when you get here on Monday there’s no company car – that was all lies – and you’re actually working Monday through to Sunday, there’s no day off and you’re working 12 hours a day. Still want the job? No? Do you want to leave? How? I’ve taken your passport, you don’t speak English, you don’t know where you are, you don’t know anybody in this country and you don’t trust the authorities because where you’ve come from the authorities are not worth trusting. So now what are you going to do?

To say a women knows what she is coming here for, to do prostitution, may be true. But does she know the real situation she’s going to face when she gets here?





Shirley Woods is a Social Worker who has worked at Project Respect as the Outreach Co-ordinator for the past two and a half years. Her work involves visiting brothels and assisting women in the sex industry with any issues they may be having difficulty with. As a member of the Prostitution Control Board in Victoria, she uses her position to advocate for women in the sex industry.

For more information visit the Project Respect website at

You can contact Shirley at:
Project Respect, PO Box 1323, Collingwood VIC 3066
Phone: (03) 9416 3401

Articles from 3 other presenters at the IWSS 20th Anniversary Forum: