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Philippines woman worked as slave, Australian court hears

Jun 14, 2024

PERTH, Western Australia – A couple from Ocean Reef, a northern coastal suburb of Perth, in Western Australia, is set to appear in Perth Magistrates Court Friday, facing charges of debt bondage, falsifying visa documents, and passport offenses.

The court appearance follows an Australian Federal Police (AFP) investigation into allegations of human trafficking.

The couple, a 32-year-old man and a 37-year-old woman, allegedly provided false information on visa applications for a foreign worker who arrived in Australia late last year to work as a masseuse in their regional WA business. The AFP claims the couple confiscated the worker’s passport, underpaid her, and imposed excessive debts on her.

The investigation began after the alleged mistreatment of the worker was reported. The 36-year-old woman, a trained masseuse, came to Australia after responding to a job advertisement in the Philippines. The couple reportedly arranged a tourist visa for her instead of a work visa by submitting false details. They also allegedly promised to arrange a student visa once she arrived in Australia.

Upon her arrival in September 2023, the couple allegedly took her passport and presented a list of expenses to be deducted from her pay, including future visa costs and workplace supplies like massage oils. The worker was reportedly not given official pay slips, advised against socializing in the community, and lived at the business.

The AFP alleges that during a trip to Perth for an English language test, the man provided cash for the worker to deposit into her account in small amounts over several days to meet visa requirements. After obtaining a bank statement, the worker allegedly had to return the money in the same manner. Additional debts were later imposed for the English exam, student visa, course tuition, and a new massage machine.

Despite being told to pay tuition fees, the worker was allegedly informed she could not attend the course. Instead, someone else would attend on her behalf to maintain her enrollment. The man later allegedly told her that her student visa application had been declined but refused to show her the documentation. The AFP claims the couple falsified her signature to withdraw the application before it was assessed.

Repeated requests for an itemized list of expenses were allegedly denied, and when the worker complained about her pay and conditions, the man refused to return her passport.

AFP Human Trafficking Team Acting Sergeant Kevin Loermans stated that debt bondage and other slavery-like practices occur when individuals are coerced, threatened, or deceived into working under unreasonable conditions. He emphasized the AFP’s commitment to the safety, health, and welfare of victims and urged the public to report any suspicious activities.

The man and woman face several charges, including:

  • Engaging in conduct causing a person to enter into debt bondage, which carries a maximum penalty of four years’ imprisonment.
  • Having control of a foreign travel document, specifically another person’s passport, with a maximum penalty of 10 years’ imprisonment.
  • Submitting false information in visa documents, which also carries a maximum penalty of 10 years’ imprisonment.

The case highlights the severe consequences of human trafficking and exploitation, urging vigilance and prompt reporting of such practices.

“Criminals can generate hundreds of thousands of dollars profiting off vulnerable individuals who may feel unwilling or unable to report exploitative conditions out of fear of retribution by perpetrators, social isolation and financial dependence on offenders,” Acting Sgt Loermans said in a statement Friday.

“All workers in Australia are entitled to a minimum wage and certain conditions and it is illegal to retain someone’s passport without their permission. We urge individuals to be aware of the indicators of slavery-like practices and report anything that may seem suspicious,” Loermans added.

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