Book Review from the January 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard
Hsiao-Hung Pai: Invisible: Britain’s Migrant Sex Workers. Westbourne £10.99
In Chinese Whispers (reviewed in the August 2010 Socialist Standard) Pai examined the living and working conditions of undocumented Chinese migrant workers in Britain. Now she looks specifically at migrant sex workers, herself courageously working underground as a ‘housekeeper’ in several brothels.
About a quarter of the eighty thousand sex workers in Britain are immigrants, mostly from China or eastern and south-eastern Europe. There has been much economic disruption in these areas; women workers have been particularly badly hit by the closure of state-owned businesses in China, for instance. One solution, which is especially appealing for those with young children to bring up and educate, is to emigrate and then send remittances home. One Polish woman who Pai spoke to could earn as much in a day in a brothel in London as she could earn in a month in Katowice.
Not that most come intending to work in the sex industry. It’s just that badly-paid and insecure work in agriculture, food-processing factories or restaurants is not enough to support a family back home or to pay off the debts of those who were smuggled here illegally. As one madam tells Pai, ‘No one would do this job if they weren’t desperate.’ They may be able to earn £300 a night, after paying part of their takings to the brothel-owner. One woman was returning to China, having earned £20,000 in four months.
But you would indeed need to be desperate to work up to fourteen hours a day, having sex with a dozen or more men, six or seven days a week. There is an ever-present fear of violence from customers or of being robbed. Whether prostitute, housekeeper or madam, there is no prospect of negotiating working hours or conditions. Illegal immigrants have great difficulty in accessing health care, including sexual health, and their poor English and social isolation often handicap them in this regard.
Further, many women are trafficked into Britain specifically for sex work. This seems to be particularly common among Romanian women and Pai mentions one woman smuggled here and then sold from one pimp to another for £2000.
The government’s crackdown on undocumented migrants has led to sex workers from outside the European Union being driven further underground in order to avoid immigration controls and make themselves, in the book’s title, invisible to the authorities.