Caught in a web: working girls.
After being bundled into the back of a truck in the McDonalds car park at Caringbah, Adeline* held tight as she was trafficked in total darkness, down the Pacific Highway.
Her stint as a prostitute at a Sydney brothel was over but, hours later, the nightmare would resume in Canberra where she had been shifted as fresh talent to another rundown parlour.
In April 2012, Adeline was one of four Hong Kong women who landed together in Australia on travel visas.
They knew they were arriving to jobs in the sex industry. But Fairfax Media has been told the reality was a far cry from the glamorous life promised. On arrival, they were met by a man who drove them to a brothel situated in a barren industrial zone near Blacktown, 40 kilometres west of Sydney. It was to become their workplace and home.
Three weeks later, a lonely Sydney man called Peter* made his second visit to the establishment: ''I met Adeline,'' he said. ''She had a twinkle in her eye that she described later as a skip in the heart when she saw me.''
After visiting her again, he sensed something was ''awfully wrong.''
''She snuck out of the brothel while everyone was sleeping early one morning and stayed with me for three days. But her phone never stopped ringing. It was her boss ordering her back. She was scared. They owned her,'' he said.
Forced to endure shifts of 16 hours or more, Adeline was entangled in a never-ending cycle of exploitation. ''One time I had to pick her up at 1am but she didn't finish until 4am as the boss kept pushing her to take more clients. She slept for almost 24 hours. When she eventually woke up and I cooked dinner for her … she could not even sit properly. She was bleeding heavily. I felt so sorry for her. I broke into tears,'' said Peter.
Peter became privy to the inner workings of the circle, even meeting the brothel's ''lawyer'', named ''Sam'', who was central to the visa scam. Peter explained how the women sailed through immigration checks brandishing fake tour and travel itineraries organised through a Hong Kong travel agency. They were then charged or loaned as much as $15,000 to enrol in English courses they never attended, while applying for an English study visa. ''The lawyer told me the visas are nearly always rejected but an appeal is lodged, which buys the girls up to two years before a decision is reached.''
He said the brothel owners told the girls that not only could they make a living from the parlours, they could take advantage of the free accommodation.
''It's all designed to maximise profit whilst alienating them from outside life and distractions,'' said Peter. ''The girls even get fed and charged for meals inside the brothel.'' The 'work, sleep, eat' arrangement is sold to the girls as convenient.
''They herd the girls in like cattle and practically brainwash them until they stop caring,'' Peter said. ''Oral sex is routinely offered without condoms. Uncovered sex is provided if the price is right. How about the drugs that go on in the rooms? They smoke ice in the Blacktown shops like crazy. They get the girls hooked so they just want to stay in the rooms and continuously have sex.''
Peter became embroiled in a bitter tug of war with the brothel. After booking her a ticket back to Hong Kong, he discovered she had been trafficked interstate, to Fyshwick, Canberra.
''I had access to her emails,'' he said. ''I started digging further and found a phone number that was listed as 'taxi' in her contacts. When I called, it went through to a well known trucking company. I later discovered the brothel had arranged to move her out of town. She was stuffed in the back of a lorry and, along with another worker, delivered to another brothel.''
The couple are now married and share a home with an 18-month-old son.
''It has been a long road to get where we are today. She is so lucky she got out. But in some ways, she will never be free,'' he said. ''She still wakes up shaking from nightmares. She still attends weekly counselling for the trauma. Perhaps she always will.''