The murky world of sex for survival

Murdered in a flat at Auburn  Susan and Jenny.

Murdered in a flat at Auburn Susan and Jenny.
Photo: Supplied

January 24, 2009

Some visitors from Asia find the pay brothels offer too good to refuse, writes Ruth Pollard.

"WE WANT to recruit ladies, we guarantee a minimum pay of $1000 per week," the advertisement in a Chinese-language newspaper reads.

It is likely "Jenny" and "Susan", the two Chinese women murdered in Auburn late last year, saw these ads and found their way to one of the many brothels in south-western Sydney, the money too good to refuse and the security it bought their families far greater than anything they could earn back home.

Like most migrant sex workers in Sydney, it is understood they were here on valid temporary visas that allowed them to work a certain number of hours each week without breaching their conditions. And they would have come from a culture that criminalises prostitution, where corruption of police and public officials is rife.

As NSW police continued to appeal for information that could lead them to the killer of the women - discovered on November 13 in a flat in Queen Street, Auburn - they appear to have faced a wall of silence from other sex workers unused to trusting authorities to properly investigate crimes.

What they have learnt is that the women worked in the sex industry - a report in a Chinese-language newspaper indicated the two were employed by brothel in Bankstown - and were sending money to their families in China.

"These are people who had come from a very, very hard life," said Detective Inspector Jim Stewart, who heads the strike force investigating the murders. "So far we have learned that Susan, a widow whose husband died many years ago, was supporting her daughter who is being looked after by relatives in China."

Preliminary autopsy results indicate whoever killed them was a "strong, powerful person" given the extent of their injuries, Detective Inspector Stewart said. "This was an absolutely brutal murder, and there is now an eight-year-old child back in China without her mother."

The women had left a holiday tour early to work. Detective Inspector Stewart confirmed they had sought protection visas to stay in Australia and that these were being considered at the time of the murders.

There was "nothing to suggest the women were involved in trafficking," he said - indeed a recent study of Asian sex workers revealed most had made their own arrangements for travel and work in Australia and retained their passports.

The study examined data from more than 1800 Asian sex workers who visited the Sydney Sexual Health Clinic from 1992 to 2006, and found the women had a very low prevalence of sexually transmitted infections, rarely had serious drug or alcohol problems and were more likely to be married and have children than comparable Australian sex workers, its author, Chris Harcourt, said yesterday.

At the time, neighbours said they believed the women were students as they were often seen carrying backpacks, although those who work in services that support sex workers say it is not surprising the women were discreet about their jobs.

"Confidentiality is obviously a primary concern for sex workers, but for migrant sex workers it is even more important because you are talking women who are living in small communities in Sydney, and they are women that have children and families back home in China," said Jo Holden, the manager of the Sex Workers Outreach Project.

"Culturally, there is a high level of stigma and shame attached to sex working so they are very, very careful about what they disclose and to whom they talk."

Many were often reluctant to report domestic violence, assault or other criminal activity to police, Ms Holden said.

It is often the language barrier that leads these women to sex work - it prevents them from finding employment for reasonable pay in other industries and leaves them with little alternative. And once they see the newspaper advertisements seeking women for work in brothels and do the figures, it is seen as the best way to earn a decent living.

"It is all about securing a better future for their family in China," Ms Holden said.