Trafficking right here in the USofA, land of the free – the BBC runs the story of Shandra Woworuntu, who thought she was signing up for a job in a hotel in the US.
She had a job in a bank but then the Asian financial crisis hit and she lost her job.
So to support my three-year-old daughter I started to look for work overseas. That was when I saw an ad in a newspaper for work in the hospitality industry in big hotels in the US, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore. I picked the US, and applied.
The requirement was that I could speak a little English and pay a fee of 30m Indonesian rupiahs (in 2001, about $2,700). There was a lengthy recruitment process, with lots of interviews. Among other things they asked me to walk up and down and smile. “Customer service is the key to this job,” I was told.
She arrived at JFK with four other women, and the guy who met them took her passport and all her other documents. Then there was a change of cars and drivers, then another, then another.
The fourth driver had a gun. He forced us to get in his car and took us to a house in Brooklyn, then rapped on the door, calling “Mama-san! New girl!”
By this time I was freaking out, because I knew “Mama-san” meant the madam of a brothel. But by this time, because of the gun, there was no escape.
The door swung open and I saw a little girl, perhaps 12 or 13, lying on the ground screaming as a group of men took turns to kick her. Blood poured from her nose and she was howling, screaming in pain. One of the men grinned and started fooling around with a baseball bat in front of me, as if in warning.
And just like that, she was enslaved. There was always a man with a gun nearby, so they couldn’t escape.
The traffickers were Indonesian, Taiwanese, Malaysian Chinese and American. Only two of them spoke English – mostly, they would just use body language, shoves, and crude words. One thing that especially confused and terrified me that night, and that continued to weigh on me in the weeks that followed, was that one of the men had a police badge. To this day I don’t know if he was a real policeman.
They told me I owed them $30,000 and I would pay off the debt $100 at a time by serving men. Over the following weeks and months, I was taken up and down Interstate 95, to different brothels, apartment buildings, hotels and casinos on the East Coast. I was rarely two days in the same place, and I never knew where I was or where I was going.
Is she a SWERF to say all this? Is she whorephobic to talk about it?
I remember the first time I was ushered into a casino hotel room, I thought perhaps I would be able to make a run for it when I came out. But my trafficker was waiting for me in the corridor. He showed me into the next room. And the next one. Forty-five minutes in each room, night after night after night, the trafficker always waiting on the other side of the door.
Because I was compliant, I was not beaten by my traffickers, but the customers were very violent. Some of them looked like they were members of the Asian mafia, but there were also white guys, black guys, and Hispanic guys. There were old men and young university students. I was their property for 45 minutes and I had to do what they said or they hurt me.
What I endured was difficult and painful. Physically, I was weak. The traffickers only fed me plain rice soup with a few pickles, and I was often high on drugs. The constant threat of violence, and the need to stay on high alert, was also very exhausting.
There’s a great deal more. Then one day an escort got careless and she was able to run away down the street. She went to the police and they told her to go away, she went to the Indonesian consulate, they did nothing. She lived on the streets and told people her story. Finally one guy believed her and got the cops to listen to her.
He had spoken to the FBI, and the FBI had phoned the police precinct. We were to go that minute to the station, where the officers would try to help me.
So Eddy drove me there, and two detectives questioned me at length. I showed them my diary with details of the location of the brothels, and the books of matches from the casinos where I had been forced to work. They phoned the airline and immigration, and they found that my story checked out.
“OK,” they said in the end. “Are you ready to go?”
“Go where?” I asked.
“To pick up your friends,” they replied.
So she directed them to that brothel in Brooklyn.
It was just like a scene from a movie, except instead of watching it on TV I was looking out of the window of a parked car. Outside the brothel, there were undercover police pretending to be homeless people – I remember one of them pushing a shopping trolley. Then there were detectives, armed police and a Swat team with sniper rifles lurking nearby.
I can enjoy it now, but at the time I was very tense, and worried that the police would enter the building and find that nothing was happening there that night. Would they think I was lying? Would I go to jail, instead of my persecutors?
A police officer dressed as a customer pressed the buzzer to the brothel. I saw Johnny appear in the doorway, and, after a brief discussion, swing open the metal grille. He was instantly forced back into the blackness. Within seconds, the whole team of police had swept up the steps and into the building. Not a single shot was fired.
An hour passed. Then I was told I could get out of the car and approach the building. They had covered one of the windows with paper and cut a hole in it for me to look through. In this way, I identified Johnny and the girls working in the brothel without being seen. There were three women there, Nina among them.
Let me tell you that when I saw those women emerge from the building, naked except for towels wrapped around them, it was the greatest moment of my life. Giving birth is a miracle, yes, but nothing compares to the emotions I experienced as my friends gained their freedom. In the flashing blue and red lights of the police cars, we were dancing, yelling, screaming for joy!
Johnny and two other men were convicted.
She works to help victims of trafficking, but there are obstacles.
We urgently need to educate Americans about this subject. Looking back on my own experiences, I think all those casino and hotel workers must have known what was going on. And that brothel in Brooklyn was in a residential area – did the neighbours never stop to ask why an endless stream of men came to the house, night and day?
The problem is that people see trafficked women as prostitutes, and they see prostitutes not as victims, but criminals. And in cities, people turn a blind eye to all sorts of criminality.
We might start by putting men who pay for sex in jail. After that brothel in Brooklyn was raided many sex buyers were interviewed, but all were later released.
Nowadays, men who are caught in the act are sent to a one-day session called John School. It’s not really punishment, but it teaches them how to identify children in brothels, and women being coerced into sex work. Good – but not good enough. I think men who pay for sex with trafficked women or men should have their names put on a public list, just like they do for child abusers and sexual predators.
“Intersectional” feminists please note.