Taking aim at human trafficking

Taking aim at human trafficking
Photo illustration.

SINGAPORE - For about a year, Erica Lazaro (not her real name), 23, was a dancer-cum-model in a Manila pub. On some nights, she danced sensually to English and Tagalog songs. On others, she was part of a fashion show so customers would stay and buy more drinks.

It was showtime rather than sleaze, and the money was good - the equivalent of $500 a month.

Still, like millions of her compatriots, she dreamed of working abroad to earn even more.

When a former colleague working in Singapore said the same job there paid at least double the money, she leapt at the chance.

Her friend introduced her to an employment agent who told her she would dance and serve drinks at a Singapore pub for a basic $800 a month. In addition, she would get half the money for all drinks she got customers to buy.

"They told me I could easily earn $1,000 or more each month."

But she would have to pay $3,800 in agent fees, including the airfare, to be deducted from her salary in instalments. This would take less than four months to pay.

What she insists she was not told then was that, unlike in Manila, she would also need to have paid sex with clients.

A performing artiste's work permit was processed quickly. In two weeks, she was on a plane to Changi Airport, traversing a well-worn migrant route and brimming with hope.

But within a day of arriving in late March 2012, Ms Lazaro was told that she had to sell $200 worth of drinks a night at the Arab Street pub where she worked. If she did not meet the "quota", she would be fined. She would also be fined if she gained weight, refused to wear a G-string or fell sick.

When she failed to sell enough drinks, her Singaporean boss began pressuring her to go out with clients and sell her body.

She says she refused initially and wanted to return home.

"But he said I could not leave without repaying my debts," the soft-spoken woman told Insight in an interview last week.

The way she tells it, her passport was confiscated and during the day, she was locked up in an apartment in the Marine Parade area with nine colleagues, and allowed only one meal a day.

Finally, Ms Lazaro gave in, and had paid sex with strangers.

"I had no choice," she says, adding that in five months of work, she did not get a single cent. Her employer kept all the money. "No one told me in Manila that my job would involve prostitution or that my debts would keep multiplying. Or I would never have come."

People like Ms Lazaro who were deceived or forced into labour or the sex trade here will soon get more protection under a proposed Private Member's Bill against human trafficking.

Public consultations on what the law should include began here this week and will continue until April 18.

The Bill is being proposed by Member of Parliament Christopher de Souza and is backed by the Government.

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