Complaints about the spread of illegal brothels have jumped by more than a third in Sydney since recommendations to improve industry regulations were blocked by the NSW government last year.
Fairfax Media can reveal that since a proposed licensing system and specialist police unit were rejected in May 2016, the City of Sydney has witnessed a 37 per cent increase in reports from disgruntled businesses and members of the public, triggering 80 separate investigations that can take up to two years to complete. One of those involves an alleged illegal sex establishment located less than 100 metres from St Andrew's Cathedral School in Sydney's CBD.
The head of the NSW Police Sex Crimes Squad recently warned a NSW Parliamentary inquiry into human trafficking that exploited overseas workers were slipping through the cracks because there was now no way to identify – or stop – underground brothels.
"The industry should be regulated and if someone wants to operate as a prostitute they should be licensed," Detective Superintendent Linda Howlett told the hearing.
When asked if she thought it would "limit human trafficking of young women into Australia", she replied: "I do, because ... in order to get a licence you know they have had to provide their passport, all their details."
Former premier Mike Baird established a brothel inquiry in 2015 after an extensive Fairfax Media investigation showed that councils had become powerless to prevent illegal parlours opening anywhere, including alongside schools, learning centres and within residential buildings.
Hundreds of those businesses were found masquerading as remedial massage centres – with some even offering medicare rebates on sexual services. But when councils, such as Hornsby, invested more than $60,000 trying to individually close them through the courts – they failed on legal technicalities. In the words of Local Government NSW president Keith Rhoades: "We have the ridiculous state of affairs in which councils are forced to waste ratepayers' money hiring private investigators to go undercover and actually buy sex from prostitutes to obtain the necessary proof to launch a prosecution."
Among those to give evidence at the inquiry was former deputy police commissioner Nick Kaldas, who spoke of Asian sex workers on student and tourist visas being drawn into a life of virtual slavery. The committee recommended a new standalone police unit to work alongside councils, with greater powers to enter premises and monitor illegal activity. However, the Baird government declined to rubber stamp those changes, arguing it would recriminalise prostitution and put the health of sex workers at risk.
The decision sparked celebrations among sex industry groups who had pointed out that police had previously been stripped of such powers and the industry decriminalised, in the mid-'90s, because of widespread corruption.
But a year on, statistics demonstrate that councils such as the City of Sydney are having to dedicate even more resources trying to curb the spread of illegal operators. Superintendent Howlett placed the issue firmly back on the agenda by advising the current human trafficking committee that, until the industry was licensed, Asian sex workers would continue to suffer, off the grid, in underground parlours.
Last month she told the hearing about victims who had journeyed to Australia knowing they were to work as prostitutes and pay off a certain amount of money. However, on arrival, the conditions changed, their debts tripled and their passports were taken.
"The hurdle for us is that the ladies who come here will all be on student visas. The industry is not regulated in any way, shape or form. We do not have the powers to go in and check."
Superintendent Howlett acknowledged there remains "a lot of angst" surrounding the introduction of greater police powers over the sex industry. "I realise what happened in the past. I do not necessarily agree it would happen in the future," she said of the brothel-related police corruption uncovered at the Wood Royal Commission two decades ago.
"It is not a criminal offence to be a prostitute in NSW. A lot of girls [sex workers] who are Australian citizens use the outreach services, get the appropriate health checks and so on. My concern is there are probably a lot of girls who are coming into this country ... and do not know what their rights are."
Do you know more? email@example.com