Isra, a Thai national, was a sex slave in Canada. She is one of around 600-800 trafficked people who arrive in Canada each year. A further 1500-2200 people are trafficked through Canada into the US. Canadian officials note that both these estimates are conservative, for very few victims of trafficking report the crime. Most trafficking victims who arrive in Canada come from South Korea, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Vietnam, and most are women trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation. In the global market for people, the vulnerable are trafficked from poorer countries to richer countries, and many thousands of these trafficked women arrive in Western Europe, the UK, Canada, and the US. Between 600,000 and 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year, according to the US State Department. Some NGOs claim the figure is four million, and the UN puts the average estimate of international organizations at two million. Perhaps the most well-publicized form of this international trafficking is sex trafficking. By some estimates, as many as two million women worldwide are currently trapped in forced prostitution. And for those who are trafficked across international borders (many of them from Eastern Europe, South Asia, and South America), there is a double bind: not only of the brothel owner’s restrictions, but the restrictions of a foreign country where they cannot speak the language, have no knowledge of their legal rights, and often fear the police. In 1996, Canadian law enforcement officials learned that a Toronto-based sex trade ring was procuring young women from Thailand and Malaysia aged 16 to 30. Agents sold the women’s services to brothel owners for $16,000 to $25,000 each. Then, before they could keep a percentage of their earnings, the women had to work off the cost of their transportation and a “debt bond” that ranged from $30,000 to $40,000—which meant servicing 500 customers. Their travel documents were confiscated and their movements were restricted. On December 2, 1998, police officers arrested 68 people at ten brothels in Toronto, including Isra. One of the charges laid against the brothel owners was forcible confinement.
When I first arrived, I worked and stayed at a place on Kennedy Road. I stayed with the owner who had bought me. Later on, there were quite a number of women who worked there—about four other girls. I used to serve four to five customers per day. Some days, I had 11 customers. I wanted to finish my contract quickly. Once there were more girls, I did not have to work as much and the owner decided to move me to another place, which was where I was arrested.
At this place, I had to put up with all kinds of customers. They were all drunk and stupid. I had to do everything they wanted. At first, I could not stand it. I went back to the first place because one of the girls who had come here a month before me had finished her contract. At the time, the owner of the parlor was going to the US. At first she told me that she would take me back to the second place to work and I just had to let her do that. She let me go back, however, when one of my regular customers was going to spend the night. When I came back the next day, she told me that she would like me to finish my contract fast and she would take me to her friend’s parlor in the Sheppard area. I had no objection. She could do anything to me because I wanted to finish the contract as soon as possible. However, instead of taking me to her friend’s, she sold me to a Thai girl who had a Vietnamese boyfriend, in Mississauga. I could not stand staying there because I did not have enough customers. After two or three days, I could not stand it anymore.
At the time I owed $12,000 more. It took seven or eight days before my former boss bought me back. The boss bought me for $10,000 and wanted $2000 from me. Every day, I had to work. I had no time to rest even when I had my period. Sometimes when I got really tired, she asked her boyfriend to take me to her place for some sleep. I could not sleep at the massage parlor because the owner had fights with her boyfriend. I had to put up with my circumstances because I owed them money. If I finished paying her back I could leave. I had to work every day because they forced me to. I had to have my period in one day; I had to take three or four birth control pills per day. Actually, I did not want to work at all. When I told her that I hurt, and where, she still made me work without stopping. I had to be patient and I never had a fight with her. The owner was a workaholic. If we did not have enough customers on any day, she would start to complain and use abusive language saying that I did not do a good job. I just had to be patient and listen to her. When we had lots of customers, she was happy and went out with her boyfriend, but when they came back, they started fighting again.
One day I woke up early in the morning to launder my clothes at a place near my work. On that day, the owner of my massage parlor went out to advertise our phone number—that hadn’t been done for one to two months. At that house, one of my friends was making a dish called “Kanom Jeen Man Nguew.” That day the house was strangely quiet. I felt like going out; I did not want to stay at in this parlor. One of the reasons was that all day we had had only two customers. I worked for one and my friend worked for the other. The owner of the parlor, my friend and I played a card game. We finished the game. I was lying down on the sofa. There was a Vietnamese man who came to see the owner. This person was looking for a girl to work at his place. After the conversation was over with the owner, the Vietnamese man walked out the door. After about five minutes, there was somebody knocking on the door. The owner of the parlor opened the door and thought that it was a customer. She did not look through the cat door. That was the moment we were about to be arrested. It was about eight or nine at night. There was a middle aged Vietnamese-Chinese man who knocked on the door. She opened the door. As soon as she opened the door, the police, about ten of them, raided the place. They ordered us to be still and not move.
The owner of the place turned very pale, like a boiled egg. Some of the policemen searched for evidence. They broke the glass windows in two rooms—the workroom and the room that the owner and I stayed in. The officers who restrained us shouted very loud saying that we should not do anything. My friend and I and the owner of the place sat on the sofa with our hearts sunk and lost. I told myself that I was arrested, and would accept the situation later on. The owner of the place could not control herself and cried.
Narrative as told to the Toronto Network Against Trafficking in Women