Pub waitress forced to entertain customers

SINGAPORE - A poster at a small provision store in China advertising jobs in faraway Singapore altered Ms Li Xiu Ying's (name changed) life forever.

On a whim, the impoverished mother of one decided to apply, an act that entangled her in a web of danger and deceit that she is not free of even today - so much so that some family details have been withheld in this story for their protection.

What she can reveal is that her husband earns around 20,000 yuan (S$4,000) a year from running a small business. With their young son growing up fast, money had been tight.

She had been keen to work in a factory in Singapore as she knew someone who had done so before.

But when she met the employment agent who advertised the jobs, he suggested that she try her luck in Singapore's fast-growing food and beverage sector instead.

"I was told to apply for a job at a pub as there were plenty of vacancies," the 33-year-old tells Insight in Mandarin.

The job was described as serving food and drinks, and cleaning the pub after hours. Her monthly salary: $1,000 plus tips.

Ms Li had to pay 20,000 yuan in agent's fees and another 5,000 yuan for her flight ticket to Singapore, which she borrowed from friends and relatives.

She signed the contract and was soon on a plane to Singapore.

However, her workplace proved to be a Chinatown KTV lounge. On her arrival, although it was early evening, her "colleagues" were decked out in garish makeup and sexy short dresses.

Ms Li was given a similar dress and told to sing and entertain clients.

She also had to drink with them, straightaway.

"I was upset, I had never dressed that way before, but decided not to complain since it was my first day," she says.

As she recounts her tale to Insight, the young mother, face scrubbed clear of make-up, and wearing an old black T-shirt and fraying shoes, looks a far cry from the seductress her former job required her to be.

On her second day in Singapore, her female boss took out a copy of a new contract written in Chinese for her to sign.

The clauses left her horrified and helpless.

Ms Li claims she was told that she must be personally responsible for customers spending at least $5,000 each month at the pub through the sale of drinks, tips from song-and-dance shows she did and if, all else failed, by offering paid sex.

If she did not meet the quota, she was told she would be fined $3,000.

As she did not have any money to pay, it would just be added to her "debts".

She also had to pay her own foreign worker levy and accommodation expenses.

The list went on.

She says that initially she was not forced to offer sexual services, but as her "debts" increased, the pressure was piled on.

Then one night, a month later, her employer told her a client had offered to pay $2,000 for sex with her.

"She said if I did not sleep with this guy, she would send word out to my family in China that I was a prostitute.

Ms Li says she fainted in distress and had to be taken to hospital.

A colleague - not her boss - paid for her hospital expenses.

She eventually gave in to sleeping with clients in the hope of earning enough to pay back her "debts" and leave.

But it was never enough. The second month, she claims, she earned $8,000 for the boss, but was paid only $1,500.

"That's when I realised that however hard I worked, whatever pain I suffered, they would always keep taking away my earnings from me," she says rapidly, her face contorted with anger.

"It was no use."

She ran away shortly afterwards, and with the help of friends was referred to Home, which fights human trafficking.

She has been given a job at a kopitiam under the Ministry of Manpower's Temporary Job Scheme.

Her employer is being investigated.

Meanwhile, Ms Li lives in fear of being accosted by her former bosses.

She hopes they will be jailed one day, not just for her own protection, but so that they do not continue to recruit innocent women from overseas.

But most of all, she just wants to continue working in Singapore so that she can repay her debts and begin doing what she came here to do in the first place.

"All I really want is to work hard and support my family."

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