There’s a good deal of interest in human trafficking, and there’s no doubt that it occurs. The numbers thrown about sometimes boggle the mind, press the limits of credulity. Yes, how good are the numbers? Who is generating them and what are their agendas—and agendas there are, about this there can be no mistake. And exactly what is trafficking, and what are the various forms that it takes? As I sit here in a tiny guest house in faraway Laos, and with no possibility of doing Google searches on the issue—something more easily done at home and on my desktop computer in any event, I got to thinking about these questions, and in particular what little I think I do know about one aspect of what I am sure most would describe as trafficking; trafficking in young women for the purposes of prostitution.
A Vietnamese man who moves freely between Phnom Penh, Cambodia and the Mekong Delta approaches needy Vietnamese mothers in the Delta and more or less says: I will give you $500 today if you will allow your daughter to work as a prostitute in a brothel or girlie bar in Phnom Penh. Except for necessary living expenses, the girl will have to pay me $1,000 dollars to pay off the debt you have with me from the first money that she makes. After this money is repaid then what your daughter makes is her money, with nothing more owed to me.
Is this trafficking?
I don’t think so.
As I have presented the scenario—one I have heard about and believe it is about as I have rendered it (very hard to verify, to be sure)—the mother, and perhaps the daughter (the issue of the mother’s possible coercion is a complicating factor), are being presented with a way to get money that one or both may see as necessary to keep the household going, meet the most minimal expenses for food, clothing and shelter. Indeed, it may be the case, and often is, that the young woman has a child and no means of support from an absent father. In the scheme of opportunities or available choices, the young woman’s decision (albeit complicit with her mother) can be seen as a good one indeed. She may say that she did not have a choice, and use this very word; but the fact is that it was probably the only choice she really had, given her predicament and where she lives. Or by many measures, and money being the most important one, easily the best choice she could have made—the moral issue aside, an issue that takes on a particular and one might say bland hue when poor.
Then there is the situation in the Philippines, and again the issue of trafficking, one in this instance where there is a constant flow and turnover of young women moving into and out of prostitution in Angeles City, or rather a tiny piece of it: a small and compact whoring area with somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000 registered prostitutes, about half of them at any one time working is some 100 bars and go-go venues.
The flow of young women into Angeles City—overwhelming from Samar and Leyte in the Visayas—is fed by three means: recruiting mamasans; girls hearing about prostitution from other young women—friends, cousins, even sisters; and a push from parents, most likely the mother, to prostitute herself for those with money, namely foreigners (to include the South Koreans and Japanese, who Filipinos do not describe as foreigners). As far as I can tell from talking to scores of prostitutes in Angeles City, the last factor—the push from parents to become a prostitute, as opposed to simply telling the daughter she has to find a job of some sort for the child she now has—accounts for a tiny percentage of the stream of young women into Angles City. My crude guess is that it accounts for no more than two or three percent of the total.
In virtually all the go-go venues in Angeles, groups of young girls—ten, fifteen, even more—are controlled by a mamasan. It is the mamasan’s job to see that they come to work, that they behave as she wants them to behave and in accord with bar rules, in short to understand that she is their boss in all important respects. She is the one they look to for guidance, and from whom they receive discipline; the mamasan, then, is their mother away from home.
For her effort, the mamasan gets a commission on what the young women earn, particularly by way or barfines or what men pay to go with the young prostitutes. She may also get a cut on “ladies drinks” that the girls get when they sit with a customer, drinks that are more expensive than what the customer pays for a drink for himself.
When clubs need new or more girls they advertise, and often quite publicly on the front of the club, to the effect that they are seeking a mamasan with ten or more girls. How many mamasans there may be working in a club depends on how many girls the clubs wants (upwards of 100 in several of them, and up to 250 or more in a few) and how many girls the mamasan has in her stable (borrowing the latter term from the world of pimps in the U.S., who refer to prostitutes under their control as their stable).
Many of the mamasans recruit the girls in the mamasans’ home provinces, since they know locals and it is easy for them to get information on girls that are of age, and vulnerable or needy—the two—vulnerable and needy largely interchangeable: needy because the family is very poor and the girl is willing and sometimes even eager to help the family financially, needy because she is a single mother with no support whatsoever from the father of her child, overwhelming the case with single mothers in the Philippines.
The mamasan is even quite receptive to including virgins or “cherry girls,” in her stable, knowing that without much persuasion she can get them to go with customers: “bar-hopping” only; or bar-hopping and sleeping with them; or bar-hopping and sleeping with them and also giving them a blowjob. The mamasan knows that at some point—often a couple of months into the job-- the young woman will more or less come to accept what those around her are doing all the time and then decide to cash-in her cherry girl status and sell her virginity to a foreigner, a price that in 2012 can range between 50,000 and 100,000 pesos ($1,200 to $2,500).
I have heard of one unusual case where a girl living in Samar was contacted by a mamasan because an American was looking for a cherry girl and was willing to pay 100,000 pesos for the pleasure (more likely pain, most certainly from the girl’s point of view) of taking her virginity. The mamasan arranged for the eighteen year-old girl to come to Angeles, spend one night in a hotel to lose her virginity, and then return home. It was almost two years before the girl returned to Angeles to work as a bargirl, in the interim toiling seven days a week for less than 2,000 pesos a month as a domestic in Manila.
After the sale of one’s virginity, the young woman is no different than other bargirls she has been working with. She will now go with customers willing to pay a barfine, and to the extent she does so this becomes a continuing source of commissions to the mamasan. The mamasan, in effect, is a pimp, one pimp among many pimps. It is a long list that includes bar owners and waitresses and touts on the street, and all those others feeding off of or profiting from the young women. In this long feeding chain, the mamasan, one might say, is Top Pimp, the one who is most indispensable to the existence and maintenance of the long food chain.
Allegedly, when recruited, the girls are told by the mamasan that they will be working as dancers or waitresses, and in a technical sense this is true. They do dance, if shuffling one’s feet while standing on a stage often shoulder to shoulder with other girls can be called dancing. Some of the young women in fact do become waitresses, and only waitresses; but the great majority of them are just as willing to go with customers as those who expose most of their body while dancing. (Not without reason, there are mongers who prefer the waitresses, if only for the mystery of what is not revealed in wearing a uniform.)
Whatever the girls are told they will do upon recruitment, there is no doubt whatsoever that shortly after arrival in Angeles City they become fully away of how to make small money (their meagre salary—less than four dollars for eight or nine hours of dancing, and commissions on drinks—between a dollar and a two dollars, depending on the drink ) and greater amounts (hardly anything remotely like big money by western standards) by going with customers on barfines, either for a couple of hours or all night long (about twenty dollars for either effort, not taking into account any tip the customer may give the young woman upon leaving).
There is, to note, not the least ambiguity about what the girls are expected to do with customers who barfine them: minimally have intercourse, and if they are not willing to do so then the customer can, and often will, return the girl to the bar to get a refund on his barfine. Because the young women talk so much among themselves about what dancers and waitresses in Angeles City do, there are very few if any who do not know exactly what they will be doing to earn money before they ever reach Angeles. That the girls are somehow in the dark about what the job entails is a myth, the kind only entertained by those eager to claim that the young women have been duped about what they will be doing in Angeles.
There’s no doubt that what the mamasans do is considered trafficking by many, and now by the Philippine government, no doubt because of moralistic shouting by western nations with money, and of course missionizing NGO sorts. And this means that the mamasans have to be more careful than they have been in the past about how they recruit the young women, and how they get them to Angeles. Whereas once they could travel with a handful or more of them by bus and ferry from Samar and Leyte to Angeles, now they have to avoid this method or be much more careful and watchful for those looking for traffickers. On the other hand, it bears noting that were the government interested in prosecuting mamasans for trafficking, all it would have to do is round up scores of them in Angeles City and then get testimony from the girls that work for them. The evidence would be as solid and confirming as any evidence to be found in any good criminal case. That none of this happens is obvious testimony to corruption, and more specifically to the fact that while prostitution is illegal in the Philippines it operates as openly as one might imagine in Angeles and Manila, and in a regional center like Cebu.
As a bit of an aside, one that is cause for a chuckle if not laughter from whoremongers, many of the clubs in Angeles upon a customer giving the money for a barfine to a waitress is presented with a very cheap fifth of alcohol that no one would drink, or presented with a dozen or so tiny shot glasses of tea or juice. The purpose behind all this is to give the appearance that what the customer is really doing is paying for enough alcohol or drinks so that the girl can be released from her work shift until the following day. [She is not, of course, a prostitute but rather a GRO, or Guest Relations Officer!] Of course, some silly and blind and hypocritical bureaucrat from an enforcement agency in Manila or Angeles City might argue is that what the customer has paid for has nothing whatsoever to do with what everyone knows she will be doing shortly or before the night is over—having intercourse and perhaps doing more than that with the man who has just paid her, well, barfine—an unwritten agreement to shag her.
The other way in which young women get into prostitution in Angeles, again principally from Samar and Leyte but also from Mindanao and Manila and elsewhere in the Philippines, is through information they have picked up from friends, cousins, even siblings. Indeed, a great many of them will tell you that this is precisely how they got into whoring in Angeles; going to the city of Angels had nothing whatsoever to do with having talked to a recruiting mamasan. Once in Angeles, they then hook up with a mamasan, very often the same one that has the friend or cousin or sister in a stable, the one who informed the girl about the best way to make money to send home for the poor family, and specifically to support the child that her mother is caring for in her absence.
This source of girls to a mamasan is, of course, a rich and very welcome addition of new or fresh talent into a stable, valuable not only because it increases the size of the stable and therefore her own income stream but also because many men are on the constant hunt for young women who are new to the game. Clearly in this case one most certainly cannot talk of trafficking: the young women heard of a job—easy enough to get even if overweight and with a body that shows the unattractive effects of a pregnancy and birth--that pays more than they were getting as a domestic or as a virtual slave employee in Manila working eighty hours a week in an electronics factory. Or in a great many cases they were doing nothing at all in a distant province, because there were jobs for almost no one.
So the question arises then: are the mamasans—central and essential to the whole Angeles City bargirl scene—traffickers?
I do not think so, and I think the only people who will call them traffickers are those eager to make the trafficking numbers as large as possible (and feed their missionary efforts financially and personally) or who do not know how the system works; and in the latter case really don’t want to know how things work lest it reduce, and perhaps quite dramatically, the numbers they need to make a case for widespread trafficking of young Filipinas into homeland prostitution. Perhaps even more germane here is the issue of free choice. The young women are told by a mamasan of an opportunity to make money that they cannot otherwise make, and it is their choice whether or not to join her stable of similarly desperate young women. Too, and crucially, the young women are free to leave a mamasan’s dominating on-job clutch anytime they wish to do so, and indeed do leave the whoring life altogether for any number of reasons, including getting involved in a serious relationship or marrying a customer—the latter not uncommon in Angeles. In short, coercion is not involved in the mamasan-bargirl relationship. The young women have the choice of entering or not entering into the whoring game, and leaving it when they wish to do so.
A final issue is that of the money being made off of the young women by the mamasans, and so many others. But surely this is not an issue at all, any more than exploitation via shameful wages paid for domestic help or in a factory is an issue. The profits (whether computed hourly, daily or monthly) taken in such morally neutral employments—working as a domestic or in a factory--are fundamentally no different than the commissions that mamasans and the owners of bars and go-go venues take on what the girls do, or the girls bring about because of the customers who come to the bars and go-go venues and at a minimum buy drinks for themselves and perhaps for a young girl that they may or may not barfine. .
Trafficking, of course, does occur all over the world, and for reasons having nothing to do with prostitution. Without pursuing the argument further, it would seem that genuine trafficking, as opposed to what many would assert with great certainty is trafficking—young Filipinas brought from the provinces and Manila to work as prostitutes in Angeles City, the example I have elaborated upon--would at a minimum seem to involved coercion, deception, and critically the inability to freely leave whenever one desires to do so. These are conditions that, as far as I know, are absent from the widespread mamasan--bargirl relationship found in Angeles City, and also in Manila and elsewhere in the Philippines.
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