Journalist Hsiao-Hung Pai first went undercover to talk to Chinese migrant workers in Britain about their lives. That’s where she heard stories of migrant women turning to sex work to support their families.
In her latest book, Invisible: Britain’s migrant sex workers, she talks to women sex workers. She worked as a maid in brothels while secretly filming inside, working with filmmaker Nick Broomfield.
Zhen Zhen, a single parent in her early 40s, described why she came to Britain. She said, “After being made redundant at the factory I began work as a restaurant waitress, the money was appalling—£80 a month.
“But there were no other jobs around. I had to borrow £9,000 to come to England.”
Sex work makes the women “doubly illegal”. Both the law and employers encourage their insecurity and isolation.
Hsiao-Hung added, “If they get raided by the police the workers get arrested and deported. The employers just move—they’re often not on site. It’s the worker and maid who get arrested.”
Both sex workers and maids and are regularly moved from house to house. This increases their isolation and dependency on employers who pressure them to have unprotected sex for more money.
The mistreatment of migrant sex workers is often raised by politicians or in the media—and the solution is usually harsher immigration controls. But that would only make the women more isolated—and more vulnerable.
Already the government treats the women as criminals. To avoid the laws on brothel keeping employers mostly have one woman working alone with a maid to let customers in. They are told they must not leave the house or the police will catch and deport them.
They also face crippling debt if they returned home from Britain. Hsiao-Hung said, “They have to keep their secret from their family and the wider community.” The women often have no access to health services.
When Zhen Zhen caught an infection and was in a lot of pain, her employer wouldn’t let her see a doctor. “Because I’m booked for the whole of this week and that’s it—no argument.
“She won’t even let me go to a chemist till my shift is over. But I really do need to see a doctor. She just won’t let me out of this flat.”
The NHS in east London runs the Open Door organisation with information and practical help like free condoms. It has a multilingual website but the problem is access.
Enormous pressure is put on maids to do sex work and make the house more profitable for their employers. Hsiao-Hung felt the pressure to make more money. Her employer asked her, “Don’t you need it to send home?”
She also told Hsiao-Hung she “pitied” her mother for having such a “selfish daughter”.
“I felt if I had been that person I would feel guilty and responsible and take up the job. I had friends who did the same,” said Hsiao-Hung. These women are trapped in these places. It makes life hell.”