Country of Origin: South Korea
Visa type: 12 month working holiday visa
Why did Sun come to Australia?
Sun had started studying Chinese language at a University in Korea but dropped out because she wasn’t able to finance herself. She started doing sex work – the pay was reasonable, and certainly more than she could earn doing anything else, and her hours were flexible. The major problem was that sex work is illegal in Korea, so there was the constant threat of being arrested and fined or sent to prison.
Another sex worker introduced her to an ‘agent’ who promised to help her in finding safe, legal sex work in Australia, a place to live, good working conditions and a fair rate of pay. Sun thought this would be a great opportunity to set herself up financially for the rest of her life - she did the calculations and worked out that she would be able to save up enough to pay for her studies and still have some left over, by doing sex work in Australia for one year. She also wanted to experience a different culture and learn some English. The agent said he would organise everything. Sun thought it would be a great adventure.
What happened when Sun got to Australia?
When she got to the Sydney parlour, the owner told her she had to repay a ‘debt’ of $25,000 that she’d ‘incurred’ by having her flight and visa organised. In order to pay off this ‘debt’ Sun worked 14 hours a day, 6 days a week and her boss pressured her to work on her day off as well. She wasn’t paid any money until her ‘debt’ had been paid off. Sometimes, her boss pressured her to perform sexual services without a condom. She lived in an apartment adjoining the parlour and was not permitted to leave the premises unsupervised. The boss threatened Sun with deportation if she complained too much, refused a customer or tried to go to the authorities for help.
How does Australian law see this?
Sex work has been decriminalised in New South Wales and so Sun has not committed any offence by coming to work in the sex industry.
The parlour owner may have committed offences under the trafficking and slavery provisions in the Commonwealth Criminal Code. The High Court of Australia considered the slavery provisions in the context of the commercial sex industry in R v Wei Tang  HCA 39, which you can read about in Fact Sheet #1 - What is Slavery. Debt bondage, where someone is made to work to repay a manifestly excessive debt (compared to the real cost of visas and flights, for example), is a separate offence. It is likely that debt bondage is a relevant offence in Sun’s case.
The parlour owner may also have breached provisions of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) which could result in severe financial penalties or even imprisonment
“I was excited to come to Australia because I was told that I could do sex work legally and get a good rate of pay. I wanted to set myself up financially but when I arrived I was told that I had incurred a debt to my boss and I wouldn’t get any money until it was repaid.”