Asian women lured to New Zealand with cash offers to work in the sex industry are being forced to work in slave-like conditions, a Herald investigation has found.
The women, mainly from Malaysia, are recruited by agents who offer cash up front of up to $10,000 plus air tickets to come to New Zealand.
But once here, the women are handed to brothel owners, who take their passports and make them work up to 18 hours a day to repay the "loan".
Police were called to a central Auckland brothel this month to help retrieve the passport of a Malaysian sex worker who wanted to leave the country.
Auckland Central area commander Andrew Coster told the Herald that brothel management had been holding the woman's passport, but returned it when the officers appeared.
Police could not pursue the matter because the woman - who came to New Zealand on a visitor's permit - was focused on leaving the country and did not want to press charges.
Mr Coster said that while such incidents were happening, police had no information to suggest the problem was widespread.
United States intelligence reports last year named New Zealand as a destination for traffickers from across Asia, particularly Malaysia, Hong Kong and China.
Under current immigration law, only Australians can legally work in the sex industry here while on a temporary permit.
But Mr Coster said it was not the duty of the police to oversee immigration laws.
The woman had told another sex worker at the central Auckland club that she had been paid $5600 to come from Malaysia, and had been made to work 16-hour shifts - from noon to 4am - with few escorted breaks on most days.
But the club's owner denied the accusations, saying she was holding on to the passport at the woman's request.
"She was afraid she would lose the passport and asked me to keep it for her as safekeeping," the owner said in Mandarin.
However, when approached again late last week, the owner said through a spokesman that the woman's passport was in their possession because they were helping her apply for a work permit.
The owner said she knew it was illegal for the woman to work as a prostitute, but insisted the brothel was breaking no laws as sex workers were not employees, but self-employed independent contractors.
The Herald understands prostitutes generally charge about $140 for sex, of which $40 goes to the brothel owner for "room hire".
But Immigration New Zealand border security group manager Glenys Robinson said sex workers could be considered employees if they were working at a brothel.
"For the purposes of the Immigration Act, employment includes any activity done for gain and reward.
"Employers have a responsibility to ensure that they do not aid and abet a person to breach the conditions of their permit."
Ms Robinson said New Zealand was formulating a multi-agency plan to stop human trafficking in this country, and the matter had been discussed at a forum in Auckland last month.
Teenager recalls her 'months of horror'
Tempted by the offer of $4500 and a return airfare, "Rosita" decided to leave her native Malaysia to work in the Auckland sex industry.
The 19-year-old - a karaoke hostess in Kuala Lumpur - was not unfamiliar with having sex with men for money, but did not imagine the nightmare that would follow her decision.
Almost as soon as she arrived in Auckland in April, her passport was taken by her "new boss".
She described the next two months as "like a sex horror movie".
"I have to service about 10 to 20 men and sometimes up to 14 hours a day. I cried everyday. I have no contact with the outside world except the clients. I asked one of them to help me, but he turned out to be a friend of [my] new boss and I got a bashing. I learned to shut up after that."
New Zealand was her first overseas trip, and she had pictured working in a "glam establishment". Instead she was made to work from a private property in Panmure.
Rosita said she was well aware she was breaking immigration laws by working as a prostitute.
"I know I am breaking the law here, but I am also breaking the law everyday in Malaysia where prostitution is illegal, so what's the difference?"
Rosita was told on her arrival the cash was a loan that had to be repaid with interest and the cost of bringing her to New Zealand was also to be reimbursed. She was told her passport would not be returned until she had earned $10,000 for her "boss".
Rosita's passport was returned after she managed to arrange for the money to be paid by a friend in Kuala Lumpur. She has now returned to Malaysia.
Annah Pickering of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective said there was concern that many sex workers - particularly Asian prostitutes - did not know their rights.
The organisation has produced a leaflet it intends to distribute to Asian prostitutes. It contains information on the girls' rights, how much they should be earning as a sex worker, and details of the Prostitution Reform Act.
"No one can force you to have sex," the leaflet says. "Sex workers in NZ normally receive $100 or more after any fees paid to the owner of the premises for providing sex once. You are doing important work, make the client pay!" it says.
The leaflet also asks sex workers to turn to the collective for help if they do not have access to their passport and money, or do not have freedom to shop or sightsee during time off.
Miss Pickering said Asians now formed the second largest racial group among Auckland's 1600 sex workers - outnumbering Maori and Pacific Islanders, and second only to Pakeha.
* 2.5 million people are in forced labour, including sexual exploitation, at any given time as a result of trafficking.
* 56 per cent, or 1.4 million are in Asia and the Pacific.
* Most victims are between 18 and 24, while 95 per cent experience physical or sexual violence.
* New Zealand is a destination country for human trafficking from Malaysia, Hong Kong, China and other Asian countries for sexual exploitation.
* A multi-agency taskforce is developing a National Plan of Action to stop people trafficking in New Zealand.
(Source: US Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report / Department of Labour)
* Anyone with evidence of people breaching their permits by working in the sex industry should contact Immigration New Zealand: 0508-558-855.