Philippines takes aim at juicy bar trafficking

Officials hope tougher immigration rules keep Filipinas from S. Korean prostitution

By JON RABIROFF | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 15, 2009


UIJEONGBU, South Korea — Philippine women would no longer be allowed to work in South Korean “juicy bars” — where prostitution is often a byproduct — if Philippine Embassy officials’ efforts to tighten up immigration regulations succeed.

Embassy labor attache Delmer Cruz said he hopes that by the first quarter of 2010 women from his country will be prohibited from employment as “hospitality workers … at bars in the vicinity of U.S. bases or near the sea ports.”

He hinted in September that changes could be on the way that might affect the juicy bar industry, but in recent days he revealed that “high-level measures” are being discussed and a further crackdown on Filipinas traveling to South Korea is in the offing. He stressed that a number of agencies and officials still have to reach a consensus before any additional steps are taken in that direction.

“Our objective is to send only true entertainers and performing artists who work in decent places and provide wholesome entertainment ... in five-star hotels, classy restaurants, cruise ships, amusement and entertainment centers,” he said. “We don’t really consider the juicy girls as the kinds of entertainers we’d like to send for employment abroad.”

In September, Stars and Stripes reported that despite the U.S. military’s stated “zero tolerance” policy for human trafficking, prostitution continues to be a problem at many of the juicy bars that cluster by the dozens in seedy entertainment districts near bases across South Korea.

The vast majority of those bars employ Filipinas whose primary job is to talk U.S. servicemembers into buying them expensive juice drinks in exchange for their continued company and conversation.

The women are brought here by promoters who essentially rent them out to bars, but only after the Filipinas pass a singing audition and secure an entertainer visa. Many come to South Korea thinking they will be performers, only to find out after they arrive that their primary job is to flirt with soldiers and other customers, and to prostitute themselves when they fail to meet juice-sale quotas.

Cruz said previously that it is difficult to determine the extent of prostitution that goes on at the juicy bars, but he added that just the “kissing” and “physical contact” between the Filipinas and customers he has witnessed during undercover visits is unacceptable.

An embassy investigation revealed that so far this year, more than 500 Filipinas had gone through the proper channels to secure entertainer visas in South Korea, including submitting their proposed employment contracts to the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration for review.

However, Cruz said, about 1,800 Filipinas have been granted entertainer visas by the Korea Immigration Service during that same period.

“What does that imply? That these ladies came here through illegal channels,” he said, most likely with the help of illegal recruiters who did not want the Filipinas’ contracts reviewed.

Cruz said that in about 25 percent of the contracts his office does review, performers are destined for one of the bars on the Philippine Embassy’s “watch list” of 100 or so “performance venues” where Filipinas have previously been forced into prostitution or encountered other problems. In those cases, the applicants — or their promoters — are directed to secure contracts with other venues.

Prompted by the alarming number of entertainers entering South Korea via illegal means, Philippine Labor and Employment Secretary Marianito D. Roque issued a warning recently that Filipinos “face abuse in South Korea” if they do not go through proper channels in securing their visas.

By sending their proposed employment contracts to Philippine authorities, Roque said, “Filipino entertainers … seeking jobs in Korea may also be apprised of Korean employers/promoters and entertainment venues with derogatory records and not suited to employ Filipino workers.”

Cruz said the warning has been posted on the embassy’s Web site, and will be published in its newsletter, but he conceded it will have little effect until other “policy reforms” now on the drawing board are enacted. He said Roque’s warning could be considered the opening salvo in the effort to better regulate where Filipino entertainers end up working in South Korea.

“The objective is for the government agencies on our side to have better coordination,” Cruz said, “to stop the departure of Filipino entertainers who resort to illegal channels and end up exploited or abused in such places.”

He pointed out that the Philippines has in recent years barred its people from leaving the country to take jobs in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Jordan and Nigeria, due to concerns about security or working conditions. In the case of Iraq, the Philippines went as far as stamping all passports “Not valid for travel to Iraq.”

However, according to various news reports, a significant number of Filipinos in search of better pay and benefits than what is available in their home country have still managed to get around the travel bans. They go through third-party countries; use older, unstamped passports; or are recruited by “escort services” that pay off Philippine airport and immigration officials to get them out of the country.

Cruz said the responsibility for seeing to it that Filipinas do not fall victim to the juicy bar industry rests primarily with the Philippines, not the governments of South Korea or the United States.

“As a sending country, we can actually choose what kind of workers work in what kind of place,” he said. “The burden is more on our side.”

U.S. military officials have said they are vigilant in monitoring potential illegal activities at base-area juicy bars, but will only place off-limits those found in violation of prostitution and human-trafficking regulations. U.S. Forces Korea has placed about 50 such bars on its list of establishments where servicemembers are not allowed, but has stopped short of imposing a blanket off-limits order on all juicy bars.

Cruz said Philippine officials are still considering sharing their “watch list” with the U.S. military, in hopes that as many as 20 additional juicy bars will be put off-limits.

While the juicy girls’ suggestive physical contact may be objectionable to Philippine officials, Cruz said it is not illegal and that he understands why the U.S. military will only bar its servicemembers from establishments caught in the more-serious acts of prostitution or human trafficking.

“The U.S. military sees things from its own point of view,” he said.

Amnesty International files report

The mistreatment of Filipinas employed at juicy bars near U.S. military bases in South Korea has gotten the attention of Amnesty International, the human rights organization.

A 98-page report issued Oct. 21, “Disposable Labour: Rights of Migrant Workers in South Korea,” says women “recruited as singers (to) the U.S. military camp towns, have been trafficked by their employers and managers, and live in slavery like conditions.”

“Upon arrival in South Korea, they discover that their job in reality is to serve and solicit drinks from U.S. soldiers, and at some establishments they are forced to have sex with their clients,” the report said.

Juicy bar employees hang out in the doorway of one of the 70 such establishments in The Ville.

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