In a Hong Kong tower block, prostitutes in one-room brothels sell themselves for as little as US$40 a time and are often exploited by triad gangsters and abusive clients.
However, an increasing number of sex workers, particularly migrants from mainland China, are complaining about the behavior of the police supposed to enforce the law, with some officers accused of helping themselves to free sexual services.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of sex workers ply their trade in one-room brothels, massage parlors, saunas and bars throughout the territory, where prostitution is legal but soliciting is not.
In an anonymous 20-story tower block close to a popular shopping district, men of all ages take the elevator to the top of the building, avoiding eye contact with each other as they circle down the dingy stairwells, ringing at doors where signs say either “welcome” or “wait.”
Muffled noises betray what is happening inside.
In one of the rooms, a 25-year-old prostitute sits on the edge of the bed, wearing only black underpants and a white T-shirt sporting a picture of a cartoon bird.
With its pink duvet, makeup kits, soft toys and television, the messy space could belong to a typical teenage girl.
However, the woman laughed uneasily and held out her wrist to show a network of cuts, some fresh, some faded, all self-inflicted.
“This job is no good. In my heart I am unhappy, but my face must be happy,” she said.
She is controlled by a member of one of the territory’s notorious triad gangs. Forced to work as a prostitute, she has to pay the gang member HK$2,000 (US$260) a day since an ex-boyfriend amassed huge gambling debts six years ago, using her as a guarantor.
Every day she sees five or six clients, or “fans” as she prefers to call them, earning HK$500 for 40 minutes, paying the HK$2,000 to her boss and keeping whatever is left.
She says she cannot escape or call the police because the triads will take revenge on her family, who do not know of her work.
“The girls here are all controlled,” she said.
Most are Chinese and so more vulnerable to police harassment than those from Hong Kong, she added.
“The police are afraid of Hong Kong girls because we can complain, but they are not afraid of China girls. If the China girls complain, they can arrest them,” she said. “I never thought Hong Kong had police like this”
It is against Hong Kong law for anyone to live off the earnings of a prostitute, and police say they are targeting the organized criminals controlling the women.
However, Zi Teng, a group campaigning for sex workers’ rights, collected 203 complaints from sex and massage workers against police in the first half of the year, more than double the figure for the previous six months.
The allegations included 32 accusations of officers taking free sexual services and eight of indecent assault, along with arbitrary arrests. There is no way of verifying the allegations and police say they attach “great importance to the proper conduct” of officers.
Nonetheless Zi Teng project officer Betty Shao said controversial police rules, which allow undercover officers to receive sexual services including masturbation as part of an investigation, reflect the city’s misguided policies when it comes to the sex industry.
“Sex work is like any other type of work and sex workers should have the same rights,” she said. “These three types of person — the police, bad customers and bad bosses — they’re the ones who are acting illegally, but the law cheats the migrant sex worker first.”