The number of foreign prostitutes in Auckland has jumped in the last three years, as young Chinese students look for a fast way to make money.
A study shows a 25 per cent increase in foreign sex workers since prostitution was decriminalised by the Prostitution Reform Act in 2003.
One of the authors, nurse specialist Bronwyn Schofield, said that "probably two-thirds" of the 38 non-resident sex workers she had interviewed over two years after the act were Chinese women.
Many of them were students aged between 18 and 24, who told her they went into the trade for "easy money" or out of desperation to get cash.
However, prostitution is still illegal for these women. Students and tourists are barred from sex work by the Immigration Act and the Prostitution Reform Act.
The figures - compiled from a weekly clinic Ms Schofield runs for sex workers - corroborate what police and the Prostitutes Collective have told the Prostitution Law Review Committee.
Both used the phrase "significant issue" to describe the increase in non-Kiwi sex workers, with police adding that international students in the industry were "an increasing problem" as well as people who came on student visas with sex work in mind.
The Department of Labour said that illegal sex workers were typically on student or visitor permits. Api Fiso, group manager border security, said the department visited brothels "on most weeks" to check workers' status and educate employers.
The Prostitutes Collective said staff had noticed "an increase in Chinese sex workers coming from parts of Asia where they speak Cantonese", and the increases were most noticeable in "areas where there are language schools and universities".
In an editorial in today's English-language Asian newspaper iball, editor Charlie Chan discusses the case of "Miss X" who was up to her neck in debt and behind in rent.
"There are many young women like Miss X who have come to New Zealand ostensibly to study English and acquire other work skills so they can land better jobs after returning home. Sadly, quite a number of them fail to attain their objectives and face tough choices trying to overcome financial difficulties ... In the case of some female Asian students, it would seem sex-for-sale is the answer.
"The hard choices Miss X has to make to overcome her financial difficulties bring into sharp focus the issue of growing Asian involvement in New Zealand's sex industry."
The Prostitutes Collective periodically counts Auckland's sex workers, trawling through all the parlours and checking ads and websites.
Auckland had about 1500 sex workers, said regional co-ordinator Kate Dickie. Many were sole traders working from apartments or suburban homes.
A decade ago, most foreign workers were Thai, but their numbers fell as visa rules tightened.
Catherine Healy, the collective's national co-ordinator, said the increase in Chinese sex workers reflected a growing Chinese population.
"We think there is a bit of an intersection between those who come to study and sex work," said Ms Healy.
"We know this has been the case in other parts of the world.
"People think, 'Oh my gosh that's awful, they have come here to study and that's what they should do'.
"But people have to remember that New Zealand exports students who also work in the sex industry in foreign countries." The trade has been thrown into focus on the North Shore, where the number of commercial unlicensed brothels - those with more than four workers - "has increased dramatically in the last 12 months", according to Warwick Robertson, North Shore City Council's environmental team leader and a former policeman.
He knew of "about nine or 10" large illegal brothels, most of them run and staffed by Chinese people. Irate neighbours of one in suburban Albany have threatened to publish clients' plate numbers on a website called Where Is Your Husband?
A Herald survey of other councils found they were not experiencing the same trends. Although Mr Robertson's main concern was the environmental impact of brothels, such as traffic congestion, he was concerned that some "Chinese [sex workers] are charging more for low protection", whether oral or penetrative sex was involved. "That is extremely dangerous."
At the same time, New Zealand also has its first Chinese-language porn magazine. Kiwinight, which appears to be managed from Australia, and features explicit pictures of mostly Chinese women, adult cartoons, and advertisements for local brothels. Cut-out coupons promise $10 discounts.
"It's a first," said Catherine Healy.
FUNDING EXPENSIVE LIFESTYLES
Suzie, a Korean student, went into sex work on a classmate's suggestion after her parents returned home. Her $180-a-week wage for working in a grocery shop failed to cover her bills.
She earned about $2000 a week working from a Glenfield house she shared with two Chinese student prostitutes.
Her clientele were mainly Pakeha, she said, who told her they preferred Asian women because they were cheaper and "prepared to do more".
Dora, 21, says she became a sex worker after her parents stopped her monthly allowance of some $3000 in an effort to persuade her back to Shanghai.
A business student who had let her studies lapse, she initially worked as a supermarket shelf-stacker but decided that $10-an-hour jobs wouldn't support her lifestyle, which included dining out daily because she couldn't cook, bar-hopping and shopping.
Neither woman had told her parents. But both spoke to journalist Lincoln Tan, of iball.
Mr Tan said he was surprised how important money was to the women - and how many were prepared to take health risks for more money.
They were not hard up, he said: "It's more because they want to. They want the lifestyle they have been used to back in their own country.
"Money is status. Money is who you are. That's why the temptation to get into sex work is so high."
STUDENTS EASILY PERSUADED TO TAKE RISKS WITH UNPROTECTED SEX IF PRICE IS RIGHT
Authorities are worried that Chinese students working illegally in brothels are easily persuaded to take major risks if the price is right - or are pushed into it by brothel owners.
No-condom sex was easy enough to find in Auckland, said Rick Franklin, a sexual health physician. "There are certain parlours where sex without a condom is promoted. When a client tells me he had sex without a condom, my jaw drops."
Condoms protected against HIV, the virus that could lead to AIDS, and other infections. New Zealand's most commonly diagnosed sexually transmitted infection (STI) was chlamydia, which caused pain and infertility. Cases soared by 39 per cent in the five years to 2005, with under-25s most at risk. Some student prostitutes didn't realise STIs were asymptomatic. "You don't know you've got them unless you're tested for them," said Dr Franklin.
Bronwyn Schofield, a nurse specialist who ran a weekly sexual health clinic at the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, said a worrying number of student prostitutes were naive, and thought if a client looked clean and healthy, no-condom sex could not pose a threat. "There will be some forced into it because they are naive and vulnerable."
Ms Schofield suspected that some brothel owners deliberately employed illegal workers in order to have more sway over them.
She said the need for more programmes targeting illegal sex workers was urgent: "We need some way of getting into the places they are working and educating them properly ... before the negative influences take a hold."
The New Zealand Prostitutes Collective was among taxpayer-funded organisations providing education. Kate Dickie, the NZPC Auckland co-ordinator, had help from a Mandarin-speaking volunteer, but many workers were hard to reach.
* This story is a joint investigation by Julie Middleton of the Herald and Lincoln Tan, the managing editor of iball, a free fortnightly English-language Asian newspaper, available in Auckland. Its latest edition, out today, investigates Chinese prostitution.