Trafficking of Filipino Women to Malaysia

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Trafficking of Filipino Women to Malaysia

Examining the Experiences and Perspectives of Victims, Governmental and NGO Experts

Government report

By: Diana Wong

Date: 2004

Source: Diana Wong. "Trafficking of Filipino Women to Malaysia: Examining the Experiences and Perspectives of Victims, Governmental and NGO Experts." United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2004.

About the Author: Dr. Diana Wong earned a degree in sociology from the University of Singapore and earned a PhD from the University of Bielefeld. Since 1999, she has held the position of Senior Fellow at the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.


The International Organization for Migration has stated that 2.5 percent of the world's population is international migrants. Of those migrants, the United Nations' High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) approximates that close to 120,000 women and children become victims of human trafficking, with a final destination of the European Union, and seventy-five percent of those trafficked are under the age of twenty-five. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), in its Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons identifies trafficked persons as victims, stating, "Trafficking in persons shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent or a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor or services."

Although the UNODC concentrates on the criminal cartels that operate in human trafficking, trafficking is not an activity exclusive to organized crime. Trafficking of humans is becoming a highly lucrative and widely expanding operation. In her research for the UNHCR, Jenna Shearer Demir identifies human trafficking as the third most lucrative international criminal activity, following only the trafficking of arms and drugs. Because of weak domestic laws and poor coordination between states of origin and destination for trafficking, punishment for human trafficking is relatively weak compared to sentences for those of drug and arms trafficking.

Economic opportunities entice migrants and provide the lure by which traffickers attract victims. The UN estimates that by 2025, sixty percent of the world's population will be living in cities. Much of this migration has begun as internal migration from rural regions to urban centers. However, the lack of employment opportunities provides the motivation for international migration. The European Commission asserts that the factors leading to international migration, particularly for women, include unemployment, extreme poverty, and marginalization.

Many of those who fall victim to human trafficking are recruited by fake ads, mail order bride catalogues, and casual acquaintances. The phony job opportunities range from domestic servants, nannies, and caregivers to the elderly to waitresses, or factory and supermarket workers. Often the victims are provided transportation for migration, which includes the cost of passports, visas and other official travel documents. This becomes one of the controls by which the traffickers elicit cooperation on the part of their victims—debt bondage. The victims are forced to repay their traffickers for these expenses and any other expenses, such as food and lodging, which their captors determine. The victims generally enter the country by a social, tourist, or student visa, which are confiscated, along with other official documents like personal identifications and passports, by the traffickers and become an additional form of control and coercion. After allowing the visa to expire, the traffickers advise the victims that they are immigration offenders and risk criminal proceedings in the new country. As such, the victims remain under the control of their captors in order to pay for proper documentation. Traffickers also threaten the lives of the victims' family members in order to elicit cooperation.

The Filipino experience of human trafficking varies little from others around the world. However, there are other factors in migration motivation and recruitment of Filipino women. In 1974, the Philippine Labor Act created the mechanisms for the export of labor. The government created licensing agents, to include the Philippines Overseas Employment Agency, whose goal is to promote and regulate labor contracts. In the late 1970s, the majority of exported labor was skilled or semi-skilled men contracted to the Middle East, which was experiencing a construction boom. By 1997, however, the Philippines was the largest exporter of female labor and officials deemed the Filipina migrant as the "heroine of the Philippines economy" due to the remittances back to their families in the Philippines.

As a government-sanctioned institution, labor migration is entered into by both the educated and uneducated Filipino women. According to Mary Rose Fernandez, an estimated forty-two percent of Filipina who emigrate have some college education, while only seven percent have less than a high school education. The lure to migrate is based on the ability to return to the Philippines with additional skills, in addition to providing income relief to families remaining in the Philippines. Women seeking similar successes to those of other migrants fall prey to the human traffickers and are often recruited by other Filipinos.




Victim respondents did not indicate threats against their families or physical or sexual violence against the women themselves. While violence against women has been known to occur, in the victim survey, physical violence by the club owner as means to control or punish the women does not appear to occur. One woman who declined to work even after two weeks in the quarters, reported that she was given an ultimatum, to either go to work immediately or be sold to another syndicate. She also reported that when the women went against the instructions of the syndicate/company, the threat of violence, or real violence, was used, however, this was not confirmed by the other women interviewed in the entertainment centre. While none of the respondents in the study reported being victims of rape, cases of rape against trafficked victims have been recorded by the NGO Tenaganita in a research study and subsequent publication on trafficking in women in Malaysia.

Despite the lack of physical or sexual violence as a means to coerce or control victims, the 26 women working for the entertainment company were all "forced" to work as sex workers. The vulnerability of the women was due to their debt to the company, as well as the fact that their passport was held by the company. The seizure of the travel documents—reported by the 26 respondents trafficked to work in the entertainment center—was the main means of control over the women. As long as they were still indebted to the company, they were kept under strict surveillance at the entertainment centre by the manager and at their quarters by the security guard. Even after their debt had been paid off, their freedom of mobility was restricted by the fact that they were immigration offenders and hence it was safer to remain indoors in order to evade detection. If the women were arrested by immigration officials, it was almost certain that the entertainment centres would not give their passport back.

Seizure of documents and what was done to "buy" them back

In the case of the 26 women working in the entertainment centre, the passport was seized by the employer, to be redeemed only when the loan was repaid, or if someone else was prepared to "buy" the woman. After one month the social visit pass would have expired, as the syndicate/company failed to renew the social visit pass. This posed two kinds of problems: upon returning to the Philippines, the women would have to pay RM 1,000 ($265) to the same syndicate/company which would arrange for their passage through the immigration gate at Sandakan Port. Alternatively, if they were caught by immigration officials, they would be charged with remaining in Malaysia without a valid pass and get six (6) months prison.

Rotation between groups and cities

According to one expert from an NGO there is evidence of trafficked victims being rotated between cities in West Malaysia. From West Malaysia, there is also further trafficking to Japan, Singapore and Thailand, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Europe. In Sabah, according to a law enforcement officer, there is also evidence that trafficked victims are sold from club to club. In the victim survey, however, no instance of such rotation was reported, although there was a report by one victim that when she had still refused to take a "booking" after two weeks, she was threatened with being sold to another club.

Despite the fact that women interviewed were not rotated among clubs or cities, according to key informants as well as victims interviewed, this practice occurs frequently. There is a high level of rotation of women within the clubs due to the fact that the women sometimes run away, return voluntarily to the Philippines after working off their debt, are "bought" by someone else, or have been detained and deported. Thus the market demand for women remains constantly high and new women are constantly entering the clubs.

Organised crime group: organisation and scope

According to an expert interviewed at an NGO in West Malaysia, there are eleven (11) criminal groups in West Malaysia involved in the smuggling/trafficking of human beings from the Philippines. Groups vary in size but are relatively small. The most prevalent groups vary in size from between 6 and 10 members, followed by fewer groups of less than 5 members. Less common are larger groups comprising between 11 and 20 members. The structure of these organised criminal groups comprise four levels:

  • Level 1 includes persons of which very little is known (not even their true identities), except that they are 'well known powerful' persons;
  • Level 2 includes those individuals who receive orders, pass on information and give directives to the third level;
  • Level 3 carries out the actual work of organising activities on the ground. They work closely with the fourth level. These persons may be pimps, madams, or small brothel owners. They have 'close ties' with government officials in the police and immigration departments;
  • Level 4 consists of 'errand boys' who arrange transportation, buy food for the women and pass on information. They also look for potential new clients and areas for expansion. This group identifies potential trafficking victims, generally young women who they befriend, or to whom they promise work (or in some cases kidnap). They inform level three of these women for overseas markets. The level four group is also known to the sex workers (locally). They may also deal with illicit pharmaceutical and hard drugs.

During an interview, a senior law enforcement officer in Sabah, attested to the existence of such syndicates in Sabah, although no number was mentioned. According to this expert, the approximate size of the groups in terms of membership varies between six to ten members, while other groups have less than five. According to this expert, the structure of these organised criminal groups comprise three levels:

  • Level 1, the "penganjur", are the entertainment companies in Sabah, Malaysia. These "penganjur" or organisers receive the trafficked women and force them into prostitution;
  • Level 2, the "agents", are the groups of persons, almost always employment agencies, who recruit and sell or hand over the women to the "penganjur" in Malaysia or to the agents in the Philippines. In the Philippines, the agents are almost always Filipinos;
  • Level 3, the "recruiters", are persons hired by the agents to recruit the girls in the Philippines. Their target groups are broad and include young girls from poor families, as well as university or college students and graduates, school leavers and girls who are already in employment but are looking for better opportunities abroad.

The information supplied by the senior law enforcement officer concerning the nature of the criminal groups in Sabah tallies with the picture that emerges through the victim survey, the key informants and other experts interviewed.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The study has found clear evidence of trafficking of Filipino women by organised syndicates into the vice industry in Sabah/Malaysia based on deception and debt bondage. There were reports by victims of specific incidences of collusion and corruption on the part of individual law enforcement officers with the syndicates. The geographical scope of these syndicates in Sabah/Malaysia remains limited. Close collaboration is found between the Malaysian syndicates and Filipino partners, usually employment agencies. Women are also found to be further trafficked to West Malaysia from Sabah, but the radius of circulation appears to be restricted to the region. The study found that the vulnerability of the trafficked women was heightened by the fact that in Sabah, there is an absence of a Philippine consular office, or local NGOs, to which the women can turn to for help and assistance.

As this study has proven the existence of trafficking of Filipinas into the entertainment clubs in Sabah, law enforcement agencies in Malaysia must exercise tighter inspections and control over the conditions under which the women are employed in these clubs. Malaysian law enforcement agencies should be more closely monitored for corruption. A bilateral task force should be established to co-ordinate enforcement of existing laws against trafficking-related offences in both countries. The Philippine Government should consider establishing a consular office in Sabah with an officer responsible for the protection of its workers there. As deception appears to be facilitated by the employment agencies in the Philippines, employment agencies should be more closely monitored.


In March 1999, the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute and the UNODC designed the Global Programme against Trafficking in Human Beings (GPAT). The GPAT was created to research, address, and combat human trafficking. A protocol was created to promote an effective criminal justice response within signatory states. At the international level, the goal of GPAT is to assist states in designing effective responses to trafficking. At the national level, GPAT aims to educate potential victims as well as governments, to train legal entities to effectively respond and to create a strong system of victim and witness support.



Demir, Jenna Shearer. "The Trafficking of Women for Sexual Exploitation." United Nations High Commission for Refugees (March 2003).

Fernandez, Mary Rose. "Commodified Women." Peace Review (September 1997).

Web sites 〈〉 (accessed March 5, 2005).

Interpol. "Trafficking in Human Beings." 〈〉 (accessed March 5, 2005).