One in four investigations into sexual exploitation is centred around brothels based in Sydney, the Australian Federal Police has revealed.
The AFP’s manager of victim-based crime, Commander Glen McEwen, told a parliamentary inquiry into the regulation of brothels on Friday that there were 24 separate investigations involving alleged sexual servitude in the previous financial year, six of which were focused in NSW – and some still ongoing. But he believes that number represents a “fraction” of the abuse that is passing under the radar, describing the human trafficking problem as “wide and vast.”
Commander McEwen supplied the select committee with a “snapshot” involving “opportunistic” criminal syndicates and vulnerable women, from Asia, “seeking to improve their own life, and those of their family, by moving to Australia for legitimate work.”
He spoke of a Thai woman duped into believing she was about to embark on an apprenticeship in hairdressing. “Unfortunately that’s where the exploitation commences,” he said of both her and others snared in the same trap. “Their passports are taken. They are told they are here to undertake sexual services and they will not be paid because their travel was funded by facilitators and must be repaid.”
Commander McEwen said that forever in debt, life then became a never-ending cycle of long hours, large volumes of clients and “limitations” to interact with the wider community. “You often live on the premises. You don’t get out. You don’t get to choose what you eat. You don’t see anybody. You are there working among another exploited group of people.”
The committee remarked it had been left “troubled” by his overview, not least because it had received presentations, from several stakeholders in the sex industry, who insist trafficking “doesn’t happen at all.”
Earlier on Friday, the inquiry heard from Touching Base, an Associate Member of Scarlet Alliance – the Australian Sex Workers’ Association, during which its president Saul Isbister said he had “never personally met anyone trafficked” and that “overall evidence” implied the subject had been “inflated through the media.”
Premier Mike Baird asked parliament to establish the brothel inquiry after an ongoing Fairfax investigation exposed incidents of confinement and sexual abuse in legal brothels as well as an unfolding crisis involving local councils that are powerless to prevent illegal parlours setting up shop – some alongside schools, learning centres and in residential complexes.
Local Government NSW director of policy Noel Baum told the inquiry on Friday that councils had become unreasonably burdened with compliance responsibilities, adding some had spent upwards of $60,000 trying, unsuccessfully, to close rogue operators. Those costs include having to pay private investigators to go undercover and have sex with prostitutes in order to prove that the businesses are operating unlawfully. Committee member and Sydney MP Alex Greenwich asked Mr Baum how the “relationship of tension” between councils and the sex services sector might be improved.
“The tension is around unapproved premises,” replied Mr Baum. “It’s about councils feeling inappropriately cast in a role they cannot perform properly…and then feeling pressured by the community to deal with something that is impossible to deal with.”
Since the decriminalisation of the NSW sex industry in the mid-nineties, the regulation of brothels has sparked a public policy nightmare for successive governments, with the industry overlapping the immigration, health, planning and law enforcement sectors.
NSW Police Deputy Commissioner Nick Kaldas, who appeared before the committee earlier this month, has described the inquiry as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fix the system.”
The committee is due to hand down its report on November 12.