Karen arrived in Australia from South Korea believing she would make a lot of money for easy work in just a few short months.
But as soon as she landed in Melbourne, only knowing two English words – ‘hi’ and ‘hello’ – she was trapped in a nightmare that stole years of her life and still gives her harrowing flashbacks a decade later.
The young woman was trafficked by a ruthless and well-organised criminal syndicate that preys on vulnerable girls to satisfy the sexual urges of Australian men.
Her passport was confiscated and she was forced to work 17-hour shifts – once even for 25 hours straight – in sexual slavery to dozens of men, some with rotting teeth.
‘I was so young back then, and naïve. I had a desire to make lots of money. An older friend said it was easy, legal, and I’d make a lot of money,’ she told Trafficked, a documentary screening on Stan from Sunday.
A young Korean woman, believed to have been trafficked into Australia and held in sexual slavery, seen on a hidden camera at a brothel in Melbourne linked to organised crime
Hierarchy of criminal syndicate that traffics girls into Australia from Asia and holds them in sexual servitude at otherwise legal brothels in Melbourne
‘Seven days a week, every day, I worked non stop. I did everything inside the room, I couldn’t leave. It’s where I made the money, it’s where I slept, It’s where I ate.
‘It was all exploitation. I had three or four years taken from me. Even my money was taken from me.’
Karen was only able to escape with the help of an Australian Federal Police taskforce that referred her to the Red Cross.
Still terrified of the gangsters who trapped her in a debt bondage scheme, she only spoke to the documentary while disguised.
She was the only victim Nick McKenzie, a reporter at The Age who leads Trafficked, was able to get on camera during the year-long investigation.
‘If [the traffickers] know who you are and where your family lives and you cross [them], there’s going to be a penalty,’ he explained to Daily Mail Australia.
‘There’s also a huge taboo for these women, if they speak out in South Korea where prostitution is illegal and frowned upon, they’re shamed and their family may be shamed.
‘The AFP has struggled to get people to stand up in court because not only do they face the wrath of organised crime, but also a defence barrister.’
New Stan documentary Trafficked traces an investigation led by Nick McKenzie, a reporter at The Age
The documentary takes viewers through McKenzie’s investigative process, starting with a couple of tip-offs and a stakeout outside a brothel in Melbourne.
He employs an undercover agent to get inside with a hidden camera and connects the brothel to crime boss Mae Ja Kim.
Kim heads a syndicate that runs at least 100 trafficked girls through brothels around Melbourne and she is well-connected to Triad gangs in Asia.
Ruthless and extremely dangerous, police were only able to get her on proceeds of crime charges, jailing her for a minimum of two-and-a-half years in 2015.
Once she got out, she went right back to it and McKenzie said she was still operating her network today, moving girls around ‘like cattle’ to be abused.
‘What I find fascinating is that she’s five-foot-nothing, small as a jockey, and yet we know of some very senior crime bosses who are terrified of her,’ McKenzie said.
‘She’s a very ruthless and dangerous criminal, she can really hold her own with these Triad crime bosses and has prospered in this very dark industry for so many years.’
McKenzie began by looking into the 39 Tope brothel in South Melbourne, where Kim was living and running her syndicate out of.
The AFP raided the brothel in May last year after reports two Japanese women had been trafficked to there, but no one was charged.
McKenzie eventually tracked down Kim to a massage parlour in Hawthorn, where he confronted her for exploiting women.
Kim denied everything, and hurried inside once she realised she was being filmed from across the road.
Mae Ja Kim heads a syndicate that runs at least 100 trafficked girls through brothels around Melbourne and she is well-connected to Triad gangs in Asia. She was jailed for two-and-a-half years in 2015 but went right back to human trafficking after her release
McKenzie confronts syndicate boss Mae Ja Kim outside her base at a massage parlour in Hawthorn, Melbourne
McKenzie said in the documentary that Kim was such a notoriously skilled manipulator that even he felt a bit sorry for her afterwards.
‘She called me many times at strange hours but always hung up and never left any messages,’ he explained this week.
‘I’m told she briefly panicked, but she also unfortunately loves the infamy. Tracking her down took a year, she’s like a ghost, it was a lot of hard work to finally find her.
‘We hope [the documentary] encourages her to be properly investigated and shut down.
‘The fact that she’s still running women is disgraceful given all that she’s got up to… she’s a purveyor of human misery and exploiter of vulnerable women. She’s guided by only one thing – making money.’
McKenzie enlisted the help of Korean journalist Jiyoon Kim to go undercover and expose the dodgy migration schemes human traffickers use to bring unwitting Asian girls into Australia.
Kim met with migration agent Songtao Lu pretending to be a young Korean woman interested in making fast cash in Australia – like many of the girls lured into sexual slavery.
Lu explained he could get her a tourist visa to ‘study’ at one of several private colleges that don’t care about attendance.
This allows the criminal syndicate to pull and end around with Australia’s migration system, and keep extending the visas once the girls are in the country.
After Lu was caught on hidden cameras explaining his process, Kim revealed herself to be a journalist and McKenzie appeared to confront him.
Mae Ja Kim is interviewed by police before she was jailed in 2015 for dealing with the proceeds of crime
Korean journalist Jiyoon Kim meets with migration agent Songtao Lu, whom human trafficking syndicates use to get sex workers into Australia on dodgy student visas
Lu denied knowing anything about what the girls ended up doing after they arrived, and there is no evidence to the contrary.
‘How can criminals so easily game our migration system?’ McKenzie told Daily Mail Australia, reflecting on what he learned in the investigation.
‘We’re supposed to have one of the strictest border security regimes in the world and yet we’ve identified known criminals either skipping the border easily to set up criminal enterprises, or importing women or other exploited foreign workers to service their needs.
‘It raises some profound questions about our border security.’
Later in the documentary, McKenzie received information about another syndicate using seedy motels in Queensland, led by notorious Chinese Triad boss Binjun Xie, nicknamed ‘The Hammer’ for his ruthless tactics.
Xie set up his operation in Australia immediately after getting out of jail in the UK, where he was caught running a similar network.
He was sentenced to five years’ jail in 2013 but released in 2014 and deported to China, from which he moved to Australia.
Xie used the same student visa trick to enter the country in 2014 as the women he later imported for sexual exploitation.
British cop Kevin Forrest, who helped arrest Xie, was shocked the known crime boss was able to enter Australia at all, let alone establish a sex trafficking ring.
Mr Forrest said the girls there were effectively slaves who were raped dozens of times a day – sometimes explicitly through a rape fantasy service.
‘You never come out. You never go into town. You never socialise. You’re never allowed to do anything else. You are there to perform the sex,’ he said.
McKenzie’s team was able to get inside the motel rooms where the women were kept, often 24 hours a day, and had sex with clients.
They also tracked down Xie and photographed him, but when McKenzie got him on the phone he claimed he had the wrong number and hung up.
‘These two cases studies that we found tell us a lot about the size of the problem, the failure at our borders, the exploitation that’s going on, and the demand for sex services in Australia,’ he said.
‘There’s a huge hunger for Asian women in the sex trade in Australia and there are criminal syndicates looking to capitalise on that.’
The veteran reporter admitted that between the sometimes risky situations his team went into, and his exposition of the sex trafficking networks, he did worry about what the criminals running them could do.
‘These trafficking bosses don’t survive in the Triad organised crime world by being nice, pleasant, and gentle people – they will resort to violence if their business interests are threatened,’ he said.
‘I do worry, I look over my shoulder because they’re not nice people and if you poke the bear enough, the bear’s going to come back at you.’
Notorious Chinese Triad boss Binjun ‘The Hammer’ Xie, who set up another human trafficking syndicate in Australia after being jailed in the UK over a similar scheme
One of his operations is a network of sex slaves in seedy motels across Queensland where girls live and work in one room for months on end. The documentary crew got inside with a hidden camera attached to an undercover agent
Not mentioned in the documentary was that at least one sex trafficking syndicate was tied up in the the casino money laundering scandals involving Crown, Star in Sydney, and Sky City in Adelaide.
The syndicate would bring in private planes of high rollers from Macau with Korean sex workers on board.
‘They provide a complete service – the money they use to gamble, and women to entertain, well, have sex with them. At the heart of it all is the Triad gangs,’ McKenzie said.
McKenzie believed the sex trafficking industry was so rampant in Australia, and estimated to be worth billions of dollars, was because it was put in the too hard basket.
Because it happened in the shadows without affecting Australians, there was a lack of political will or public pressure to tackle it, and was not prioritised by police.
‘It’s easy for politicians to claim they care about human rights and [promise to] crack down on human trafficking, but actually doing so requires a money, proper legislation, support services, and dedicated, long term focus – and to look at why so many men look the other way,’ he said.
‘These things don’t seem like they’re a priority for state and federal governments.
‘It’s an absolute disgrace the Victorian Government has given a long-term brothel licence to one of Mae Ja Kim’s business partners.
‘He’s an alleged triad boss and has a legal licence to print money in the brothel industry. How can that be? That says everything you need to know about how governments really aren’t that serious at cracking down on this problem.
‘It’s out of sight, out of mind, and the victims are hidden and have no agency. Police know who these organised crime bosses are running these syndicates, they just haven’t done anywhere near enough to deal with them.’
McKenzie lamented in the documentary that even after a year of work, no one might watch it, and fewer would sympathise with the exploited women.
He still feared that may be the case but hoped viewers who haven’t really thought about this might not just think about it for a moment when they drive past an Asian massage parlour.
Instead, he hoped they would realise ‘there’s a hidden trade out there and there are people suffering’.
‘We have to understand sex workers are people, they’re someone’s daughter, they’re someone’s sister and they deserve to have their rights respected,’ he said.
‘There’s a part of our society that’s happy to look the other way and justify doing so by saying it’s just supply and demand, and maybe someone these women want to work in the sex industry.
‘That may be so, but they should be paid a proper wage and not be living in fear.’
McKenzie believed the sex trafficking industry was so rampant in Australia, and estimated to be worth billions of dollars, was because it was put in the too hard basket
McKenzie said the lack of urgency or effort also tapped into a wider issue than trafficked women being trapped in sex work.
At it’s core, the problem was about migrant worker rights and said a lot about how Australians, as a society, thought and cared about exploited foreign labour.
‘We have a migrant worker underclass, be they working in brothels or massage parlours, factories, convenience stores, or picking fruit,’ he said.
‘How many times to we [have to] hear about them being ripped off for governments to do more? This program is a call to arms to address that problem.’
Trafficked ended with a senior policewoman asked what the existence of such a pervasive and difficult to eradicate illegal trade said about Australians.
Clearly troubled by the answer, she said she didn’t think she could respond on camera.
McKenzie, when asked the same question this week, said he wasn’t sure he wanted to either – but after a moment made a tentative attempt.
‘We as a society don’t do enough to have empathy, compassion, and understanding of this migrant worker underclass in our country,’ he said.
‘We like to say we’re a fair go country, but the fact is, if you’re from Asia and you come here and end up in a brothel or a fruit field or wherever, there is every chance your rights will be much less than if you were born here.
‘And that’s a disgrace, and something we should all be ashamed of. It’s not spoken about enough.
‘What does it say about us? Maybe we’re not the fair go country, maybe we’re the selfish country.’
Trafficked is available for streaming on Stan from Sunday.