The answer: migrant labour, as the investigative journalist Hsiao-Hung Pai found out whilst working undercover to research her new book, Invisible, and documentary, Sex My British Job. Posing as a housekeeper in a number of brothels, Hsiao secretly documented – at great personal risk – the shocking reality of life for some of the estimated 20,000 migrant sex workers, from China, Eastern Europe and elsewhere, working across the UK almost completely hidden from view.
The journalist, who previously went undercover to expose the exploitation of Chinese migrants toiling on British farms, in food processing factories, restaurants and take aways, documented what she describes as a ‘subhuman existence’ for migrant women caught up in the UK’s lucrative sex trade where women earn their money by ‘servicing’ male clients.
Many endure bullying, exploitation, verbal and physical abuse, as well as the risk of being raped or contracting sexually transmitted diseases from men who refuse to wear condoms.
Hsiao says that many of the women involved are compelled to enter the sex industry because of the low pay (and exploitation) they encounter in other sectors – including catering- and because they want to better support their families back home. Many have travelled to the UK to seek out employment for this purpose, sometimes incurring significant debts which also need to be paid back.
Following the Morecambe Bay disaster in 2004, in which 23 Chinese cockle pickers drowned whilst harvesting shellfish off the Lancashire coast – leading to a crackdown on gangmasters and undocumented workers – Hsiao says many Chinese migrants found it difficult, if impossible, to secure work in the agricultural sector and began to seek out casual employment in Chinese restaurants and takeaways.
Yet, says the journalist, many unscrupulous employers take advantage of the women’s often-undocumented status and exploit their powerlessness to overwork and otherwise abuse them: ‘A lot [of woman] decide to go into the sex trade to make [more] money’, Hsiao told The Ecologist. ‘They do it voluntarily, compelled by economics.’
‘Their choices are very limited, [they are] in low paid work, at risk of deportation, you can see why [sex] work becomes attractive… in 3 -4 years doing sex work they’ll pay off their debts and do what they set out to achieve [send significant amounts of money back home]. If they are not in the sex trade this could take 10 years,’ she said.
‘Ming’, a Chinese migrant who found herself working sixty hours a week for only £200 (some £33 for each ten-hour shift) as a porter in a restaurant in London’s Elephant and Castle, is typical. As well as enduring ‘impossibly low’ wages and punishing conditions, Ming suffered sexual harassment at the hands of the restaurant’s head chef – groping and sexual gestures mainly – and was forced to live in a cramped flat where 10 people shared three rooms.
It is circumstances such as this which fuel many women’s move into the sex trade, with its promises of high pay and good conditions. As Hsiao’s bold investigation reveals however, one form of exploitation is simply replaced with another. And it’s even more dangerous.
Sex My British Job broadcasts on Monday 23rd September on Channel 4 at 10pm