$15,000 Agent Fees to Work Illegally as a Sex Worker in Singapore

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Vietnamese women, Linda and Tania used to do sex work in the same area together in Singapore. One day, Linda told Tania that there’s an opportunity to work for longer periods of time in Singapore as a sex worker, as opposed to just working for one month at a time on the social visit pass. It would cost her S$15,000 – first payment of S$4,000 and subsequently S$2,200 every month for the remaining five months. This will buy her a valid 6 months work permit. All she had to do was turn up in Singapore.

Tania came to Singapore in September 2018. After filling up some forms and undergoing a health check, she was brought to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) two weeks later to have her biometric details recorded. At MOM, an unknown man – presumably the employer – took away her passport and told her to pay the first instalment of S$4,000 in order to get back her passport. Since she just arrived in Singapore and did not have sufficient money to make payment, the man kept her passport.

While her work permit officially states that she is to be a “performing artiste” in a bar in Alexandra, she knew that she did not apply for this permit in order to work there. Initially, when Linda spoke to her, Linda told Tania that this permit is for her to come to Singapore to do “free work” – expertly insinuating that she could do sex work without having to spell it out. With that, she managed to earn the S$4,000 (approximately 37 customers) three weeks later and made the full payment, receiving her passport back in return.

During this time, Tania stayed at a residence known by many Vietnamese women. Rent was S$750 for a room and meals shared by 10 other women. She went to work on the streets as a sex worker every night. At the start of the month, Linda’s Singaporean boyfriend Alvin would come to her residence to collect the monthly instalment of S$2,200.

However, when it came to December, she fell short of the required S$2,200. She could only pay S$700. Linda was angry. Linda told her that she will loan her S$1,500 so as to make up the balance. Linda told Tania that if she couldn’t pay this $2,200, her work permit will be cut and she will be sent back to Vietnam.

The next day, Tania was arrested on the streets while working. Police officers sent out a decoy to pretend to be a customer lured her to a secluded place on the pretext of going to a hotel. Then all of a sudden, someone grabbed Tania from the back by her hair, and the next thing she knew, she was in a police van.

After being questioned by the officers, Tania was released. She was to be repatriated five days later for engaging in vice activities in Singapore.

Feeling desperate, Tania came to Project X upon recommendation from a friend.

When she came to Project X, we advised her to lodge a police report against the employer for using his company’s name to obtain work permits for women to do sex work in Singapore. We told her that the employer has violated the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act by lying about the purpose of the work permits, and for engaging in agents that charge fees far greater than the law allows for (1 month salary). Furthermore, it is clear that she was not paid a salary as would be in a normal employment arrangement. The employer, Linda, and Alvin have all also violated the Women’s Charter articles 142 “Importation of woman or girl by false pretences” and 146 “persons living on or trading in prostitution”. Both articles carry a jail term of up to 5 years and a fine of up to $10,000. The high agent fees and constant threats meant that Tania was effectively in constant debt, and the fact that her passport was withheld from her for 3 weeks shows that there are indicators of exploitation, if not human trafficking.

We lodged a police report online for Tania as we were afraid that there will not be a Vietnamese translator present and that it will be more efficient for us to lay out the facts clearly and concisely so that the relevant department can be triggered for the investigation. Within two hours of lodging a report, the police called us back. He was initially sceptical of the case, questioning why she did not raise these issues when she was arrested. We told him that the police’s line of questioning was about how many customers she took and how much money she earned, and what airlines she took, not on whether she had an agent. We also told him that we spent two hours interviewing her before we uncovered how the syndicate worked and the scheme she was under. He then said he needed to check and that would call us back.

When he called back, the officer said that we should know that these kinds of things are happening all the time and that when Tania came to Singapore she knew full well that she had to pay $15,000 and that she was going to do sex work. We said that it is clear that even though she knew, she earned barely anything from this. She couldn’t even pay the second instalment of $2,200 which is why she only paid $700. We said in essence, the agent was using her as an ‘ATM’. Then, he asked us to look at the situation from the police’s point of view – that the police arresting sex workers is to try and take down these syndicates. Although it is clear that if Tania is deported, the only persons to have benefited from the situation is Linda, Alvin, and the Boss, who presumably split the S$6,900 collected from Tania.

After the first police officer did the screening, the case was transferred over to the Specialised Crime Branch — affectionately known to sex workers as the anti-vice police. There, Tania spent 6 hours being interviewed. During which, the officer questioned her incessantly about her motives for lodging the police report. He insinuated that her true intentions were to trigger an investigation that will give her a free pass to work as a sex worker for longer in Singapore. He questioned her relationship to Project X, accused us of conspiring with her, and then went through the group chat that Project X staff and volunteers had with Tania. They took pictures of our conversation and printed out a stack of papers. The officer threatened her by asking “does Project X know the consequences of lodging such a police report?”. According to Tania, both the officer and the translator were smirking at her throughout the interrogation. It seems that the officer’s scepticism was due to the fact that Tania did not raise these issues when she was arrested, and that somehow Project X’s involvement meant that she was ill-intentioned. The officer told her that there’s no way they are going to enable her to stay in Singapore for longer, and the case was closed.

The police interrogation left Tania feeling insecure about her thoughts. Tania was so afraid that she left our group chat and left us a message saying to not contact her again. She was afraid that she had got us into trouble for helping her. She also said that the police’s line of questioning shows that they were only interested in Project X, and not on the syndicate that facilitated her entry into Singapore.

She told us that while she knows she made a mistake for coming to Singapore to do sex work, she said the employer should also be punished for having “no morals”. She said it is true that she did not report right away, but only did so when she found out that Linda only cared about money and not for her welfare. However, she did report subsequently and thus should be taken seriously.

When we called the officer, he told us that investigations are ongoing and that he cannot reveal anything to us.

Feeling that police was not going to do anything, we went to the Ministry of Manpower. After all, the employer has clearly violated EFMA. As of now, MOM is still investigating the employer but Tania is unable to make any claims for monetary compensation from the boss. The reason MOM gave was that she was wrong to not turn up at her designated workplace. That she herself has committed an offence and that there is nothing MOM can do. MOM said that in terms of “humanity”, she is on the right side of things. But legally, she is on the wrong. Nonetheless, she believes that the company should also be taken to task for not being accountable to the workers. The employer did not even file a police report when she did not turn up to work. These should be red flags that should be taken seriously.

Tania has been deported and  banned from re-entering Singapore. A quick check shows that the agent continues to operate on WeChat, recruiting women for both legal and illegal work through legitimate channels. We understand that they have operations in Singapore and China. Linda and her accomplices are S$6,900 richer, and Tania is just another body for them to make money off of.

We have since filed feedback with the police, who reassured us that they have taken the necessary steps to prevent such things from happening again. Unfortunately, as long as there is still demand from sex workers to come into Singapore to work, there will be agents who are more than willing to help bend laws for them – for a cost. While both sides are culpable, it is clear that agents benefit from such schemes way more than sex workers do. We hope one day, the law will change to protect women in the sex industry, rather than those who try to exploit them.

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Vanessa Ho

Executive Director | [email protected]

Executive Director
[email protected]

Vanessa has been full-time with Project X since 2011, and as a result, has had many opportunities to meet and connect with sex workers in Singapore and around the world. Under her leadership, the organisation has grown from a small group of volunteers to one where there are three paid staff and a team of over 60 volunteers. Correspondingly, she has increased the annual operating budget of the organization five times, and is now recognized as the leading organization that empowers and assists women in the sex industry.

Vanessa has written and spoken extensively about sex work, human trafficking, rape culture, and LGBTQ rights in Singapore. She believes that if people can speak about sex, gender and sexuality in open and in non-judgmental ways, society will become a safer place for everyone.

Vanessa holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics from the University of Warwick, and a Masters Degree in Gender, Society and Representation from University College London.