The ACT sex trade and human trafficking must be challenged

Concerns about human trafficking in the ACT go back a long way. On September 26, 2001, a woman named Puanthong Simaplee died of heart failure in Villawood Detention Centre. Age 27, she was emaciated, weighing only 31 kilograms, and was suffering severe withdrawal from heroin and vomiting blood.

Simaplee had been sold into sex slavery by her parents in Thailand when she was 12. She was classified as an illegal non-citizen, a trafficked woman, and had worked in the ACT sex trade.

Her death changed our nation. We started to think more about the sex trade and if the tales we tell ourselves about the women being there by choice are true. As a result, the NSW government held an inquiry into people they classified as illegal-non citizens working in the sex industry.

The ACT police force told the inquiry many of those working without visas or residency were being held by pimps, did not have their passports and were expected to work off debts as high as $45,000.

In Canberra, cleverly disguised cupboards or ''bolt holes'' were discovered in brothels. It was unclear if these were for women to hide from clients, from detection by the police or for another reason.

Men here had been offered payment to travel to Asian destinations to accompany women back on visitor visas to work in the sex trade. Our police said there had been cases of restricted movement and coercion.


What we are talking about is that beneath our noses women are being kept as bonded slaves. It is not something we want to think about. It goes against our identity as the land of the fair go.

But it is real, and it is here because there is a market for it.

The nature of the business is so harsh women are advised not to wear jewellery because they may be strangled. They are not medically trained and cannot tell if a client has crabs or less visible STIs.

Women have talked to me about using numbing gels to cope with the physical strain their bodies suffer. They present from this industry with PTSD symptoms at similar levels to war veterans.

It is an issue we should bring out into the open. It is unacceptable in modern workplaces that workers go home covered in bruises, yet it happens daily for many women in the sex trade.

In September 2008, a 17-year-old girl died of a drug overdose in a legal Canberra brothel. Her death highlighted the fact under-age workers are used in ACT brothels. There are concerns about proof-of-age checks and drug use in brothels. Leading up to the teenager's death, there had been a complete absence of inspections of legal brothels for five years.

The Legislative Assembly's justice and community safety committee held an inquiry last term into our two-decade-old Prostitution Act that raised serious issues. The ACT's Human Rights Commission supports the legalised sex industry, but it raised grave concerns over groups left vulnerable to exploitation, including children, young women and drug addicts. The commissioner reminded the inquiry we have obligations under the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, supplementing the UN Convention against Transnational Organised Crime, which specifically targets sexual exploitation. There is ''evidence of ongoing exploitation despite legalisation and regulation'', the commissioner sad.

There is one recommendation of the committee everyone agreed on. Labor, Liberal and Green members said pathways out of the sex industry must be developed for those workers who do not wish to stay. One study shows the figure may be as high as 89 per cent of the sex workers. These pathways out are referred to in many countries as ''exit programs''.

There are problems, including physical and mental health concerns, for women working in the sex trade. Many of them want out but have a hard time imagining how to leave. I have grave concerns for trafficked women working here and for those suffering other forms of exploitation.

In the late 1990s, the feminists of the Swedish parliament came together across party lines to develop a new approach to prostitution. This approach involved new laws, comprehensive exit programs and public education and police education programs. This set of laws and programs is gaining in popularity in Europe. The European Union has voted it as its preferred model and countries such as France, Norway and England are using or looking at using the Nordic approach.

Sweden's laws involved criminalising the buyers of sex, not the sellers of sex. This was a very bold move from leading women who were seeking to change an age-old industry that seems to attract abuse and illegality.

Sweden is unafraid of doing things differently. Advocates claim the changes have scaled back the sex industry by 40 per cent. If this is true, are there 40 per cent fewer women suffering from abuse.

Would there be a commensurate reduction of crime? Is it a true claim? The Nordic model might not be the answer here, but it is worthy of investigation.

Sweden has an integrated system of shelters for women who wish to leave the sex industry. How do they work?

South Korea is reported to have some of the best and most comprehensive exit programs in the world for the many women who suffer in this industry. So how do they work? What are the essential elements, and how do we ensure they are a fix, not just a Band-Aid for women who have dreams of a different life?

This is why I'm part of a delegation to study these laws and the exit programs arising from them. Times have changed - women here suffer at the hands of a global trade in women to supply the sex industry, and Australian women suffer from the results of very tough sex work.

I am not prepared to close my eyes and pretend the problems are not here. Let's see if we can at least have a conversation about an area too often swept under the carpet.

Giulia Jones is a Liberal MLA in the ACT Legislative Assembly.