‘Korea Was One Of My Dream Countries’
The Story of a Filipino Singer
Filipino singer Nica
Filipina's Korean dream dashed by trafficking, sexual coercion
ISABELA PROVINCE, Philippines ― On the evening of Sept. 5, Nica's powerful voice filled the dimly lit live music bar located on a roadside in Ilagan, the capital city of Isabela Province, in the northeastern region of Luzon Island. Nica is a pseudonym given to the victim for safety reasons.
The Filipina singer, who is pretty well known in her province, sang a list of soulful pop songs such as Lionel Richie's "Stuck on You," "I Miss You Like Crazy" by Natalie Cole and "You Got It All" by the Jets.
She then began to sing "Tears" by iconic Korean rock vocalist So Chan-whee from the 1990s, a song one would not be expecting to hear at a bar in a rural area of the Philippines. But Nica, who worked in several bars in Korea until 2019, knew the lyrics by heart.
Nica was employed as a singer in bars catering to U.S. soldiers and expats in Pyeongtaek and Ansan in Gyeonggi Province, Okpo on Geoje Island in South Gyeongsang Province, Yeosu in South Jeolla Province as well as the nation's second-largest city of Busan.
She still remembers the day when she got accepted by a Korean recruitment agency in 2014, a dream-come-true moment for her who had been longing to live in Korea since she was 17 years old.
But that was before she knew the dark side of the country.
Nica comes from a family with musical talent. She never
attended any vocal training courses, thanks to her aunt
who taught her how to sing.
From the age of 10, she has won prizes at multiple provincial and national singing contests. After quitting college to build a full-time singing career, the Filipina gained international stage experience in Malaysia and Dubai.
Nica then began to look for more lucrative job opportunities abroad to support her family.
One of my dream countries was Korea
she said, explaining that she had always wanted to live there since seeing photos of her aunt, who is also a singer, performing in fancy Korean hotels.
The two also found out that there would be no holidays, as opposed to the employment contract which guaranteed them one day off every week.
After working 23 days straight in April, Ramanenka and Balabolava were each paid 306,480 won ($240) for that month.
In November 2014, Nica reached out via social media to a Korean agency in the Philippines recruiting singers and dancers to work in Korea.
"My agent, Mr. Kim, took a video of our performance with my partner keyboardist and he sent it to the Korean government. I was so happy when our papers were accepted," she said. According to her contract with the agency, she would enter Korea with an E-6-2 culture and entertainment visa issued to foreign artists and performers and was guaranteed a contract as a singer in a hotel.
But her happiness was short-lived.
After she landed on Korean soil in January 2015, Nica found out that she would be working at a bar and not a hotel. It didn't take long for her to realize that singing may not be her only job.
"I was quite upset," she recalled of her first day of work at a bar in the southwestern city of Yeosu. "There were a lot of Filipinas, like 20 of them, but they were not singers. I found out that they were employed there to sit with the customers and drink with them."
'Go sit with the customers'
After working about a month in Yeosu, she was sent to work at a foreigner-only club in Okpo, on Geoje Island in South Gyeongsang Province, and then transferred to a bar in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, located near Camp Humphreys, which became the headquarters of U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) in 2018.
There, Nica became another cog in Korea's "night entertainment" wheel.
Her days didn't go without drinking alcohol, something she had never tried in the Philippines.
"They (bar managers) told me to go and sit down with the customers. My work was to drink, drink and drink until I was drunk. The manager was often angry with me because I didn't know how to 'entertain' the customers. They wanted me to embrace and kiss them so that the customers would come back again," she said.
The customers often touched her against her will, but
she was told that "it is the system."
"One time, a customer wanted me. He touched me and then he kissed me. So I slapped him when he was trying to touch my breasts and then kiss me," she said.
But Nica couldn't refuse every time.
"We needed to drink more and more because of the quota system," she said. "One drink cost about 5,000 won. We needed to get more than 1 million won (from the customers) in 15 days. If I failed to meet the quota, my boss yelled and told me I can't work today and to go upstairs….I cried because it would mean a deduction in salary."
In order to sell over 200 drinks in two weeks to meet the quota, the women had to do more than just sit and talk with the customers.
"A lot of girls went out with the men (to have sex for money). The girls would earn like 100,000 won for that," Nica said. The bar owner told her to do the same.
But the women were not in a secure enough position to call the police or the embassy to report the situation that put them in vulnerable or dangerous positions.
Not only were they unfamiliar with the Korean legal system, they were also threatened by the bar owner who said they would be sent to jail for involvement in the illegal sex trade or blacklisted by immigration authorities.
After being transferred to several other bars across the nation where she had the same experience, Nica felt that she was left with no other option than to run away.
"I closed my SIM card and my cellphone for weeks so that the manager (at the bar) and the agency cannot call me. But they messaged me later, threatening that they (Korean immigration department) blocked me," she said.
Notorious E-6-2 visa
Nica's story is emblematic of the sufferings of thousands of foreign women who are tricked into sex work and modern-day slavery by Korean agencies and bar owners who take advantage of the loopholes in the E-6-2 culture and entertainment visa system.
The launch of the E-6 visa dates back to the 1990s when prostitution was rife in areas near USFK bases such as Dongducheon and Uijeongbu in northern Gyeonggi Province.
Most sex workers had been Korean until serious human rights violations of the women were made public in the late 1990s.
The government introduced the E-6 visa in 1993, which enabled foreign women to be recruited for jobs here. Many women from Russia and the Philippines were issued E-6 visas.
According to data from the Ministry of Justice, some 2,500 foreign nationals enter the country on an E-6-2 visa every year.
The problem is, however, that many of these women actually come to Korea believing they will be hired to sing and dance at hotels, not selling drinks at bars or even their bodies for money, according to attorney Jeon Soo-yeon of public law firm Apil, who has handled many cases involving E-2-6 visa holders.
"The women sign a contract with an agency guaranteeing stable income through singing or performing. But once they enter Korea, they are sent to bars and get trapped in a system where they have to beg customers to buy drinks, and are forced to have sexual intercourse to make money," she said.
"It is almost impossible for the victims to come forward. They don't want to worry their parents or families in their home country. Calling the police is also not an option, because their employers often threaten the women, saying that they will be sent to jail or an immigration detention center."
Victims of human trafficking
The government isn't unaware of the issue. The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the justice ministry have been stepping up efforts to prevent such crimes by toughening visa requirements and screening for criminal records of employers as well as making on-site inspections of bars.
But women still fall prey to human trafficking due to loopholes in the legal system, said Jeon.
"In order to root out such practices, the cases should be dealt in terms of human trafficking, not just sexual exploitation or forced labor. But the definition of human trafficking in the current criminal law is too narrow, so these crimes involving Filipinas do not constitute violations of laws prohibiting human trafficking," the lawyer said, pointing out that the possibility of punishing the bar owners under existing laws is close to zero.
The lawyer went on to say that bar owners are sometimes charged with sexual offenses, although a lot of them are found not guilty due to a lack of evidence, while the agencies and brokers who play a big role in recruiting the women just get away with it.
She also voiced concerns that earlier this year, Korea was downgraded in a U.S. annual human trafficking report by one tier for the first time in two decades. The U.S. authorities view that Korea no longer fully meets the minimum standards for the eradication of trafficking.
This isn't unrelated to the government's failure to address E-6-2 visa-related abuse victims, Jeon said.
"Despite the fact that the country is still seeing
victims of human trafficking, there are no clear laws to
punish the offenders, and the number of those being
criminally charged (under existing laws) is very, very
low," the lawyer said.
Park Chan-geul, a professor of law at Chungbuk University who specializes in sex trade-related criminal cases, echoed the sentiment.
"Since human trafficking laws were enacted in 2013, less than 10 people have been arrested over the past decade under the laws, and only six or seven have been formally indicted," he said. "But if you look at the whole process of how these Filipinas are brought into Korea, it is clearly human trafficking," he said.
Human trafficking includes the recruitment, transport, receipt and harboring of people for the purpose of exploiting their labor, he explained. Although Korea has ratified the Palermo Protocol, the U.N. treaty on human trafficking that was introduced in 2015, its laws are yet to be improved in line with international guidelines and standards.
Will new bill prevent similar crimes?
Following calls from civic groups for a separate law to more effectively handle human trafficking offenses, a new bill proposed by Rep. Lee Soo-jin of the Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) was passed at the National Assembly in June last year. The bill, dubbed "Special Bill on the Prevention of Human Trafficking," will take effect in January 2023.
But experts are skeptical about its effectiveness.
"It is not enough to eradicate trafficking. The bill is aimed at prevention, rather than punishing the offenders," Park said. "I would say this reflects a lack of awareness on the part of policy makers and civil servants about trafficking cases although they still occur frequently in our society."
Jeon said, "Of course, the amendment of a separate law targeting trafficking is welcomed, but the biggest problem is the absence of a punishment clause, which we have sought for more than a decade."
She commented that in addition to increased penalties for the offenders and clauses that prevent trafficking victims from being accused of committing illegal acts, the immigration authorities must provide E-6-2 visa holders with information about how to seek help if they face forced prostitution or violations of labor contracts.