Filipinas in Prostitution around U.S. Military Bases in Korea: A Recurring Nightmare

by Jean Enriquez, Seoul, South Korea, November 1999 

In the recent years, Filipino women have been migrating in flocks to neighboring countries, despite and because of the Asian economic crisis. Push factors for women in the Philippines are numerous. These include the feminization of poverty wherein the Filipino women suffer the worst impacts of structural adjustment programs, on which loans from World Bank and IMF are contingent. ‘Women fisherfolk are edged out by corporate fishing, indigenous women lose their lands to mining interests, urban poor women are displaced by development infrastructure, and rural women are enduring a steady decline in incomes because of agricultural free trade.’ There is also increasing trend in casualization of labour among big companies, mostly victimizing women workers. In terms of employment, only 46.8% of women are employed compared to 85.7% of men. The severe economic burden experienced by women, in connection with their roles within the family and status within society, compels women to work abroad.

Another push factor is the alarming extent of domestic violence. A study conducted from 1994 to 1996 showed that 98% of victims of family violence are females and the abuse can be categorised as physical, sexual, and economic in form. Many women tend to escape violence in the homes by migrating either to work or to marry. -The above factors are compounded by cultural expectations in the Philippines, especially in the rural areas that daughters are to save the family from poverty, placing great pressure on young women to seek ‘greener pastures’ abroad. This view takes root from feudal thinking that daughters are to pay for the family’s debt.

These were affirmed by a study conducted by the Scalabrini Migration Center on the motivations for women to work overseas, where 45% of the respondents cited subsistence and survival, with most of them belonging to a family of six, while around 15% cited sense of duty to the family.

All these contribute to the continuing feminization of overseas employment. Statistics show that women comprise almost 60% of the total number of legally deployed workers, with female workers predominantly in the low-paying service sector (where sexual exploitation happens in insidious ways), and a sizable number in the entertainment industry. Women workers from the Philippines are mostly single and young, with more than half belonging to the age group 20-29.

It should be mentioned that the Philippine government considers overseas employment as a development strategy, being a major source of dollar reserves and a relief to the severe unemployment problem. The government, thus, encourages and promotes the trade of “Filipino human resources.” In fact, a law has been passed seeking the deregulation of the recruitment industry, which spells greater risks for many women already targeted by unscrupulous recruiting agencies. As it is, deep commercial interests characterize recruitment and placement for foreign work. The high costs of recruitment result in heavy indebtedness among migrant workers. The huge debt often makes it very difficult for women to keep to a single overseas contract, nor to do anything that may compromise their legal status, including entering prostitution.

Further, the enforcement of past regulations have not been effective such that very few recruiters up to now are convicted for illegal recruitment, and none for white slavery. With the deregulation measure, it is expected that the government will have less handle to monitor, much less prosecute, illegal recruiters. Qualitative studies show that many women victimized by traffickers land overseas through illegal means, even as some were also initially contracted for legitimate jobs.

The great concern over the increasing feminization of migration arises from the highly publicized abuse and exploitation that women experience — on one level as migrants, and on another as women. They face fraud and deception at the recruitment stage, contract violations, poor working conditions, delayed and non-payment of salaries. Women are more affected by health problems and even more seriously, by physical and sexual abuse.

Cross-border trafficking is slowly being recognized as a widespread problem, such that a trafficking law is being sought to be passed in the Philippine legislature. Young women in southern Philippines are directly brought to Malaysia via pumpboats. Of those prostituted in Japan, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) noted that only 11% of the women in their study know that they would be put into prostitution, while 79% found themselves trapped abroad. Despite the law penalizing the trade of brides, women keep leaving mostly for Europe, the U.S. and Australia under the mail-order-bride scheme. This is because names, faces and physical characteristics of Filipino women are listed in the internet.

Profiles of women trafficked show that they are mostly young, with high school or less education, coming from the rural areas and from poor families. However, there are particular communities of women that are targeted by traffickers, and these include the women displaced in Central Luzon due to the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo and subsequently, the removal of the U.S. bases. Government neglect of their plight and the inadequacy of programs for the women prostituted in the former base areas render this group of women most vulnerable.

The Context of Sexual Exploitation of Women in Korea

While the regional crisis caused the closure of several business establishments in East Asia, this remains to be a top regional destination. Now, Korea ranks 7th in terms of destination of deployed overseas Filipino workers, closely following Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore and Japan. Migration channels, that is, illegal recruitment allegedly for work abroad, have historically been exploited to bring women into prostitution or other forms of sexual exploitation in foreign lands. Current official estimates place the number of undocumented workers at 14,000.

The demand for labour in Korea is such that “dirty and low-paying” jobs are vacated for immigrants from the Philippines, China and Bangladesh. There are employment systems involving Filipino workers and Korean employers that are in place. The first is the ‘trainee system” wherein Filipino workers are hired as apprentices in a joint venture with the Korean Federation of Small- and Medium-scale Businesses (KFSMB). Referred to as the Alien Technological Transfer Program, the scheme offers lower pay of $326 to the migrant worker compared to the $1,200 of the regular worker. The foreign worker gets no benefits outside of the accident insurance, which he can avail only in cases of work-related accidents.

Another scheme has a local recruiting agency standing as broker for the Korean employer. Therein, the migrant worker is demanded of a placement fee of $1,000 to $2,500. In a third scheme, the migrant worker is directly hired by the Korean employer. In all schemes, the food and accommodation of the worker are shouldered. However, they would not usually receive the exact amount for food allowance as provided for in their contract, and the accommodations are poor. Further, the migrant worker is required to give $150 of their monthly salary as “forced savings,” which can be claimed only upon going home. This last condition is the factor that compels many workers to desert their legitimate employer and find other jobs, thus the huge number of undocumented workers. While they receive significantly larger salaries from, it was reported that a female undocumented worker would receive $600 still less compared to the male worker who would receive $800.

Several employers would also prefer hiring “married couples” to save on accommodation costs. This requirement forces Filipinas to succumb to offers by male migrant workers to posture as wife to them, to be able to get the job. This has resulted to unwanted pregnancies. It has been reported that 13 babies are being sired every month in the ranks of the Filipino migrant workers.

The grave labour situation that migrant women find themselves in, compounded by the continuing arrival of women in hordes that are directly recruited for entertainment, spell a fertile ground for their being victimized for sexual exploitation. Corollarily, women’s groups and media people in Seoul are alarmed by sightings of more and more Filipinas being sold for prostitution around the U.S. military camps in the southern part of the country. This is certainly not a new phenomenon, since in 1987, it has been reported that Korea ranked 5th among top destination countries of legally deployed Filipino entertainers.

It has been asserted by studies that the growing share of women in foreign employment reflects the dynamics of demand in the host country. The presence of U.S. military bases in Korea is certainly a magnet for trafficking of Filipinas. There are reports that Filipinas are concentrated around the bases in Dongduchon-shi and and Pyont’aekshi where around 50 military recreation centers are established in each, and where American military service men usually go. These centers are locally called “foreigners club” but are actually, bars. An unwritten policy within the U.S. military force is to “keep the men happy,” as it considers sexualized recreation vital for the “morale” of troops. Studies in 1992 show that there are about 18,000 registered and 9,000 unregistered Korean women around the U.S. bases.

During the stay of military forces in the Philippines, around 17,000 women have been prostituted in Olongapo City alone, which is site of the largest US military base outside the U.S. itself. The U.S. Navy ensured that the men are kept safe, thus funding for social hygiene clinics flooded the cities where the bases are located. If 25% or more of the women in an establishment are unregistered with the clinic, the establishment will be declared off-limits to U.S. servicemen until the women are registered. Guidelines, thus, were made available to the servicemen so that they know where to go. In sum, the construction and maintenance of prostitution is integral to the U.S. military’s strategies for keeping the male soldiers content. This is obviously in collusion with local and foreign businesses that make profits from the “entertainment industry,’ and local governments that similarly earn from the lucrative R & R business.

Focus on the Process of Smuggling of Filipinas to Korea

Officials from the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration report that they estimate Filipinas in the entertainment industry in Korea to be around 1,000, while those prostituted around the U.S. military bases to number 600. The officials attest that the women recruited are very young and indeed, mostly from Central Luzon, specifically the Pinatubo area. They are recruited through friends, and promised a job as entertainer or lured by prospects of marrying American GIs. The women are not asked of a placement fee and some are trained in Binan, Laguna. The POEA listed the names of suspected local recruiters as Leila Villaflor and a certain Boy Banag. They are reportedly in connivance with Mr. An S. H. of the Korean Special Tourist Association. Mr. An is said to be residing in Metro Manila and works with Mr. Kim Kyong-Su, a Provincial Councilor of Kyonky province. Mr. Kim was recently reported in Han Kyo Reh as being investigated by the Yong-San District Police for “importing 1,093 foreign women, from the Philippines and Russia, to work as entertainers near the U.S. military camp.” He is being charged together with 2 other accomplices for illegal recruitment and forging of documents. He allegedly regularly receives commission from 234 club owners in the area.

The women are transported to the airports of either Subic or Cebu and flown to Bangkok as tourists since Thailand do not require visas. There, entertainment visas are secured by Mr. An for the women to go to Korea, supported by an invitation letter from Mr. Kim and false employment contracts. Subsequently, they are easily flown to Seoul.

There are also instances when the women go through the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, before entering which, the women are instructed on what to say in case any immigration officer would question them. In fact, some airport officers watched them closely and facilitated their departure, according to the women. This was confirmed by another official, who stated that immigration officials receive at least $25,000 for every worker from the traffickers.

Upon coming to the clubs, women are made to undress on the third day, and perform sexual acts such as tabletop dancing and blowjob. They are paid $600 but only $300 go to the woman. Still, they are not given the money until after two months. The unbearable exploitation led two women to escape and report their conditions to officials. The Episcopal Commision for Migrants and Itinerant People of the Korean Catholic Bishops Conference reported that seven Filipinas ran to them for problems of contract violation, illegal taxation and prostitution. Not long afterwards, 15 other Filipina entertainers went to the Yong-san District Police to seek for assistance.

Addressing the Issue

Efforts of women’s organizations in Korea that are working on the issue of prostitution have focused on Korean women, but recently brought attention to foreign women, including Filipinas. Since information from Filipinas around the bases is difficult to gather, the research that KCWU has started will break grounds towards informing the public on the reality of their sexual exploitation. The research investigates the process of entry of the women, their profile, situation in prostitution, and the harms to the women.

Such research work could be helped by CATW-Asia Pacific by investigating returnees from Korea. CATW has evolved a computer documentation system that records human rights violations to women. This technology could be shared with women’s groups directly working with the victims. Such system would capture the details of events of violations, profile of the victims including the impact of the violations to them, the interventions applied, and other details. Findings generated from such documentation would tremendously assist advocacy work on the issue, may it be legal, support or policy advocacy. In terms of support to the women, the strategies for assistance could be sharpened when the harms and impact of the violations are recorded accordingly. Prosecution of the perpetrators, policy proposals and other actions will also be helped by such method of documentation, which could systematize the evidences as well as serve as basis of analyses of patterns in the violations.

CATW, with its network of Philippine women’s groups, could drum up an information campaign, based on this case documentation, about the exploitation of Filipinas in Korea. The campaign shall also direct attention to the culpability of the U.S. military bases in the perpetration of the sexual abuse of women, as well as local authorities.

CATW shall take part in the networking efforts of women’s groups and support groups for migrant workers in Korea, as well as with Philippine officials to set up a system of referral to assist the Filipinas escaping prostitution. This network will also be vital in the prosecution of the recruiters, establishments’ officers and other accomplices in the trafficking of Filipinas, both in Korea, as well as in the Philippines.

In the regional and international levels, CATW will hold an inter-regional dialogue in Russia in March 2000, to discuss the trafficking of E. European women to countries in Asia and to explore legal strategies in combating the problem. Such action is reinforced by our findings that aside from the Filipinas, Russian women account for the most number of foreign women exploited around the U.S. bases in Korea. -Preventive work, including education among women in vulnerable situations and setting up of monitoring mechanisms, are being undertaken by CATW in the Philippines. We shall be happy to exchange with you on other strategies for prevention in both ends.

The Framework of Trafficking and Militarized Prostitution

CATW asserts that trafficking in women is inseparable with the issue of prostitution. The gender-based nature of trafficking exposes itself as serving the purpose of ensuring the steady supply of women to areas where men demand sexual services. We deplore trafficking and prostitution as violations of women’s human rights. We cannot consider it work, because among others, it compels women to perform acts that denigrates their person — their integrity as human beings.

The impact to women of sexual exploitation is hardly healed by time. Amerasian children, estimated at 30,000, were born to Filipinas prostituted around the U.S. military bases in the Philippines. They receive no assistance from either the U.S. or Philippine government. Economically, ‘working in the clubs’ meant irregular earnings and slavery, as many of them would be withheld of their salaries or are fined for any ‘misconduct’. The women were abused physically, psychologically and emotionally. Some were murdered. With the Visiting Forces Agreement recently signed between the Philippine and U.S. governments, 22 ports will be opened to foreign troops and more women will be abused in the remote rural areas of the country. In Korea, our women are once again subjected to the same brutality. The same experiences continue to haunt our women. In Korea, the Philippines and elsewhere, the women are viewed as commodities to be bought, and being Asians, they are certainly perceived as less than human.

Trafficking and prostitution have reached crisis proportions in the Asian region, with the entry and maintenance of foreign military troops, and worsening globalization of economies. The R & R policy of U.S. military and its surrounding industry rely heavily on the buying and luring of women not only in Okinawa, Korea, and the Philippines, but more women from other countries including Russia, China and Thailand. Its twin menace, the unrestricted and globalized trade, rides on the continuing export of labor, as a convenient channel to traffic women for slave-like work or prostitution. Every month, 200-400 women and girls from Bangladesh are trafficked to Pakistan in the guise of labor migration. Yearly, 5,000 Nepalese women and girls are brought to India and Hong Kong on the same pretext. Currently, studies estimate that 150,00 Filipinas are exploited in the entertainment industry of Japan. More and more women from E. Europe are transported to the West and to Asia for prostitution. It might surprise many that Africa is also becoming a destination for trafficking. In 1992, 8 Filipinas were tricked that they will work as waitresses in Germany but were instead brought to clubs in Nigeria.

Trafficking and prostitution, thus, need to be understood as problems arising from contexts not only of poverty and unemployment, but also maintained and promoted by economic interests and political policies that thrive on the subordinated status of women in our societies. As significantly, there are long-held definitions of masculinity, reinforced by the military institution, that are satiated by trafficking in women.

2 thoughts on “Filipinas in Prostitution around U.S. Military Bases in Korea: A Recurring Nightmare

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