An undercover investigation into the working lives of Chinese women in Britain's sex trade brought Hsiao-Hung Pai close to its painful reality.
When researching for my first book, Chinese Whispers, I began to see a gradual increase of migrant women from China entering the sex trade in Britain and the rest of Europe. Unprecedentedly, a larger number of women from working-class and rural origins seemed to be leaving their homes and country to find an alternative livelihood in order to support their families. This was a big step for many of them, bound as they were by traditional values which required them to remain at home as child-minders and carers for the elderly. It is also a trend that has been growing steadily for the three decades since China opened up to world capitalism. Clearly, this is a process not particular to women from the reform-and-opening-up-era China, but a global one.
I began to see many more Chinese women resorting to a tough working life abroad, particularly in the last decade, as migration becomes more "feminised" worldwide. When women are no longer “holding up half the sky” (as portrayed under Mao Zedong), they become migrant breadwinners. While doing so, they subject themselves to harsh immigration controls, and, not of their own choosing, become second-class world citizens.
During the past ten years, these migrant women have filled the lowest-paid jobs in Britain. They became the bottom layer of this country’s vulnerable workforce. From the hospitality industry to domestic work, migrant women tolerate the poorest working conditions, in order to achieve their aims of bettering the life of their families. Most often, they fight their battles alone when exploited. In isolation, some of them find a “way out” of the low-wage economy of Britain: they enter the sex industry, often considered a better but high-risk employment option, because it offers higher (if still meagre) rewards. However, Chinese women workers describe the choice of entering this trade as xia-hai (“jumping into the sea”); they see for themselves that it is an even more precarious, underground world of ruthless exploitation.
I have found in my research that migrant women’s immigration status is the major factor underlying their vulnerability - for it empowers employers, intensifies the social stigma from which migrant women sex workers suffer in their everyday life, and prevents them from speaking out about their conditions or organising collectively.
The fragile undercover
I relied on three main ways to gain insight into the working lives of migrant women in the sex trade: introduction via personal and social networks; door-to-door interviews; and undercover work. Through the first two methods, I established contact with Ming, a Chinese single mother who was laid off from a state-owned enterprise in the north-east of China, and Beata, from Poland, who was the sole breadwinner of the family and came to London to provide for her 7-year-old son. I followed their stories for a number of years and tried to portray the background to their migration and their entry into the sex industry (see Invisible: Britain's Migrant Sex Workers [Saqi, 2013]).
Meanwhile, I used undercover work as a way of getting a much closer look at the lives of migrant women in the sex trade. The advantage of this method was that I was then able to go beyond the “observer” approach and participate in the migrant women’s working life and experience it for myself as a worker. I aimed to detail the women’s exploitative working conditions and industrial relations; I also wanted to understand their reality of economic entrapment -- which I believed was a main feature of their work -- how they perceive it, and reconcile or resist it.
My undercover assignments went from a housekeeper job in a brothel in depressed Burnley, to a similar job in suburban Bedford, then to one in a run-down part of Stratford which the employer was trying (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) to exploit the business opportunity offered by the forthcoming Olympic games. I eventually did housekeeping and maid jobs in brothels in Finchley and Bounds Green in north London.
The last job turned out to be toughest undercover work I have ever undertaken. While trying my best to develop my relationship with the women workers around me, I had to deal with Grace, my harridan of an employer, who began to pressure me to "help out with sex work" as soon as I arrived.
I had thought that I would be emotionally strong enough to cope with undercover work inside these brothels. After all, it wasn’t the first time. But the daily bullying, constant pressure and blackmailing from the employer for me to take up part-time sex work in addition to being a maid, and the demanding pace of work, soon began to depress me. I had no space to even remind myself that I was actually on an undercover job, instead of being an undocumented migrant single mother who had no alternatives but to keep her head down. Within two weeks, I was utterly exhausted - not only physically but mentally. As the migrant single mother in my new identity of Xiao Yun, I felt I was losing hope as I kept on in the dark, toiling away in the face of abuse and threat. I was all alone and had nowhere or no one to turn to.
I felt so depressed in the third week into the job that I thought I must leave and quit the undercover job altogether. My inability to cope was making me lose concentration on the daily tasks inside the workplace: cleaning, cooking, opening the door to customers of all sorts and keeping track of each girl’s daily earnings. Things continued to deteriorate. My refusal to take up part-time sex work had infuriated Grace, resulting in constant verbal abuse on a daily basis. Meanwhile, increasingly and frighteningly, I internalised the suffering around me and I became truly part of it.
By the fourth week, I found myself having to sneak into the tiny bathroom and cry behind the closed door - the only space I could have to myself for a few minutes until the employer banged on the door. I was intimated, scared and exhausted. I became voiceless by the absence of my own immigration status. I had become Xiao Yun. She’s one of the unwanted “outsiders” that Britain wants to keep out. She has struggled through every lowest-paid job there is. Eventually, through her, I saw the sacrifice she - and all the migrant women like her - have made, in an invisible, parallel world, trying to bring hope to and provide a future for their families.