Pub Waitress or Prostitute?

Geylang red light district in Singapore

That’s when I realised that however hard I worked, whatever pain I suffered, they would always keep taking away my earnings from me.

Ms Li has been struggling to provide for her young daughter who was born with a medical condition that needs long-term care. Work is scarce in China where she lives and the pay is poor. An advertisement for jobs in Singapore she came across at a local shop seemed like the opportunity she needed to. She decided to apply.

I was told to apply for a job at a pub as there are plenty of vacancies,” the 33-year-old related what her employment agent in China told her. She was also told that she would be a pub waitress earning $1500 a month in Singapore with tips and overtime. For the job opportunity, Li had to borrow more than $5000 from friends and relatives to pay off the agent.

Upon arrival in Singapore, Li’s passport was confiscated. Next, her female boss gave her a new contract that stated that if she didn’t earn a minimum of $5000 per month for the club, she would be fined $3000. She signed. She saw no other way out because of the huge debt she had already accrued and the need to care for her daughter. With no one to help her, Li was lost.

Working in the KTV lounge in Chinatown was a nightmare. Singers were molested by customers and the lounge bosses used violence and threats to control them. Li was forced to drink alcohol, solicit customers on the street and faced immense pressure to provide sexual services. When she refused, threats were made.

(My female boss) said if I did not sleep with this guy, she would send word out to my family in China that I was working as a prostitute”, Li recalled, trembling. She fainted under duress and was sent to the hospital.

As her debt grew and despair set in, she was left with few choices to make. She gave in in the end to provide sexual service hoping to pay off her debts and to return home sooner. Every transaction left her feeling sick.

The following month, even though Li earned $8000 for the club. she was only paid $1500. That was when she realised that no matter how much she suffered, her employers would continue to keep her in debt. This became clear when her salary was also subjected to multiple deductions and arbitrary ‘fines’ if she refused to comply with customers requests. Feeling ill or exhaustion after long working hours were not reasons enough for her to refuse clients .

When she asked to leave her job, the manager held her by the neck and threatened to hurt her and her family. Li ran away. She came to HOME for help. Her case is currently under investigation after it was referred to the Inter-Agency Taskforce on Trafficking in Persons.

Li continues to live in fear since she is unable to pay off the debts to her bosses. She hopes they will be jailed one day for deceiving innocent women into sex work against their will.

While her case is undergoing investigations, Li was granted permission to work under the Temporary Job Scheme offered by the Ministry of Manpower. Being able to work has made a huge difference to her. She has earned enough to repay her debts and even saved some money to finance her daughter’s medical treatment. Having a job also keeps her occupied and distracts her from her bad experiences, while she waits for the investigations to conclude.

All victims of trafficking should be given the right to decent work opportunity while they wait for their cases to be resolved, regardless of where their countries of origins are or the sector in which they were originally employed.

All I really want is to work hard and support my family,” #stoptraffickingsg


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