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HONG KONG, Jan 24 (IPS) - Marie is seated at a corner table, her profile flickering amid the confusion of lights at a popular disco where she works. She is the latest recruit in a virtual army of heavily-made up young Asian women that enlivens Hong Kong's entertainment district of Wanchai. At 1 a.m. on a cold Wednesday, Marie should be sleeping off another exhausting day of housecleaning and laundry work. But that night, she decided to cross the thin line between domestic servility and prostitution.
Yet her story was drowned out by the disco beat and the commotion of dance, booze, tipsy swagger and commercial sex negotiated in whispers.
At four in the morning, Marie -- richer by 500 Hong Kong dollars (64 U.S. dollars) -- called it a day.
That was easy money for one night. It would have taken her at least a week of back-breaking toilet-cleaning, dishwashing, babysitting and laundry work to earn that amount at the New Territories, where Marie has been a part-time domestic worker for two years since leaving the Philippines.
Like the more than 800,000 Filipino workers who leave home each year, she wanted to help turn her family's misfortunes around through clean, decent and honest work.
"I didn't want to do this, but I'm forced to do it because I need money. I have no other means," says 25-year-old Marie, who is from the rice-farming Cagayan province north of the Philippine capital, Manila. Her new night job, she confides, is a secret from her parents back home.
Marie is not the only domestic worker seeking new opportunities in Hong Kong's club scene. At the other clubs along Jaffe Road in Wanchai, Mongolians, Thais and mainland Chinese also wait for business executives and expatriates on the prowl for quick, cheap sex.
There are no statistics on prostitutes in Hong Kong. But this does not mean that prostitution does not exist, says the head of the United Filipinos in Hong Kong (UNIFIL), a non-government organisation working with the more than 150,000 Filipino domestic workers here.
"The fact that there are no (official) figures seems to me a denial of the problem," says UNIFIL chairperson Connie Bragas Regalado, who points out though that the problem of domestic workers drifting to prostitution is not yet widespread.
But it could reach that point, no thanks to the syndicates behind this thriving but sordid industry, adds Regalado, who claims to have witnessed a long queue of Filipino women being brought to ships that dock here to provide "entertainment" to sailors.
Apart from the syndicates, however, the women themselves are lured into the sex trade by the easy money they can make to augment the wages they receive for working eight hours a day, six times a week as a domestic worker.
A domestic worker earns a minimum monthly wage of 3,670 Hong Kong dollars (470 U.S. dollars), but Hong Kong legislators are expected to decide soon on a proposal to cut this rate.
Many Filipino workers here also feel the pressure to earn more because they had borrowed money from loan sharks to pay for exorbitant recruitment fees, in order to take up work here.
Yet many continue to come to Hong Kong to work, and some, like Marie, who find themselves needing more money, go beyond domestic work.
An accounting graduate, Marie was introduced to the Hong Kong night life on a seemingly ordinary evening: she and other domestic workers spent their day off at the discos.
"Later on I got to meet some (Filipino women) working there," she recounts. "And soon enough I learned what a 'PR' ('public relations') job was -- dancing with customers, being 'tabled' (being reserved as a customer's companion), being served drinks and getting a cut from the club owner. The money comes fast."
For every drink her customer orders for her, Marie gets a 50 Hong Kong dollar (6.4 U.S. dollar) commission. It is the same amount she gets hourly as a part-time domestic worker, except that she gets twice, thrice or even more that amount in one hour at the nightclubs.
"Public Relations girls," as Marie and the rest call themselves, are not employed by the clubs, but they are used to lure customers. What happens outside the bars is beyond the concern of the club owners and is the PR girls' own business.
Marie's friend, Monette, who also moonlights as a PR girl, takes home 300 to 500 Hong Kong dollars (38 to 64 U.S. dollars) a night. "But on weekends I earn 1,000 Hong Kong dollars (128 U.S. dollars), besides the extra service if it's called for, which is bigger," she says.
Loida, 31, worked as domestic helper before becoming a waitress, and then a PR girl. She is now married to a westerner -- but her work still continues.
"The income is too good to pass up," says Loida, while grooving to the music in the club. "I told my husband I don't go out with the customers anyway. At least I don't have to ask money from my husband to send to my kid back home," she adds.
Whatever the women's reasons for plying the trade, the bottom line is still economics. "The reason why these girls are here is the same as that of other Filipino migrants, to earn money because there's no work in the Philippines," explains Gie Estrada, research and documentation coordinator of the Asia-Pacific Mission for Migrant Filipinos.
Yet is not always easy for NGOs to monitor the situation of these women.
"Unless they come to us, it's hard to give them assistance. Many are controlled by the syndicates," Estrada says. "So they're exposed to all kinds of dangers," including HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Estrada believes the Philippine government should get into the picture to help the women, saying there should be "an effort to know this problem". Regalado agrees: "The government should give the girls protection if it can't already give them jobs in their own country."
An official at the Philippine consulate admits that his office has no record on Filipinos engaged in prostitution. But this, he says, does not mean that the government is ignoring the problem.
"We can't ascertain that they are into prostitution since most of them are legally employed in Hong Kong," the official says. "Unless somebody comes forward or complains, we would not really know how many are out there. Of course, we are concerned about this and we would like to discuss this issue with the Hong Kong authorities."
But while neither the women nor the government are seeking each other's cooperation, it is business as usual in Wanchai.
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Last updated: October 08, 2010