Human Trafficking in Victoria’s Sex Industry

The crime of human trafficking is often linked to sex work. It is important to distinguish between sex work, which comprises activities carried out between consenting adults, and human trafficking, which is a serious breach of human rights. Legislation relating to the sex industry must reflect this difference.

The Extent of Human Trafficking

The extent of human trafficking is fiercely contested between groups with divergent narratives about the nature and legitimacy of sex work. It is probable that human trafficking, like all crimes, is under-reported to police. In addition, obtaining convictions against human traffickers has proved notoriously difficult. Therefore, official police statistics most likely do not portray the full extent of human trafficking.

A 2004 federal inquiry into human trafficking¹ found that there are no universally accepted figures of the scale of human trafficking in Australia due to differing definitions of what constitutes human trafficking.

“The difference between these two [human trafficking] estimates may be partly explained by differing definitions….”

Finding 2.67, Inquiry into the trafficking of women for sexual servitude (2004)

Some critics of the sex industry believe all forms of migrant sex work constitute human trafficking. Others rely on more narrow definitions.

Defining Human Trafficking: What Does the Law Say?

While sex work laws are legislated at the state/territory level, human trafficking laws are federal laws found in the Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth), enforced by the Australian Federal Police (AFP). Human trafficking laws are not sex work laws as they:

  • Apply to all industries, not just the sex industry
  • Are federal laws applying Australia wide, whereas sex work laws vary from state to state and are legislated by individual state/territories

Human Trafficking Related Crimes as Defined by Federal Legislation

Human Trafficking Related Crime

Maximum Penalty

Section of Federal Criminal Code Act

Slavery25 years imprisonment270.3
Servitude20 years imprisonment270.5
Forced Labour9-12 years imprisonment270.6A
Deceptive Recruiting7-9 years imprisonment270.7
Debt Bondage4-7 years imprisonment270.7C
Human Trafficking12 years imprisonment271.2
Aggravated Human Trafficking20 years imprisonment271.3
Human Trafficking of Children25 years imprisonment271.4
Domestic Human Trafficking12 years imprisonment271.5
Aggravated Domestic Human Trafficking20 years imprisonment271.6
Domestic Human Trafficking of Children
25 years imprisonment271.7


To put these penalties in context, in Victoria the maximum penalty for murder is usually 25 years imprisonment, rising to 30 years if the victim was an emergency worker on duty.²

Some important points in relation to human trafficking related crimes in the eyes of the law:

The Australian and Victorian parliaments, in 2004 and 2010 respectively, conducted human trafficking inquiries. Some of the findings and recommendations were that:

  • human trafficking victims within the sex industry are overwhelmingly female, although very small numbers of male victims are known to exist³
  • Australia is a destination country, with Asian countries being source countries
  • the Australian Crime Commission focus their investigations on the methods by which people traffickers are able to circumvent Australian immigration barriers through visa fraud5
  • Victoria Police currently cooperate with the Australian Federal Police and Department of Immigration and Citizenship in order to combat these crimes6
  • the inquiry did not recommend the introduction of the Nordic Model of sex work laws in Australia as a means of combating human trafficking

To What Extent Has Human Trafficking in Victoria Been Detected by Police?

Human trafficking related crimes are prosecuted by the Australian Federal Police (AFP). Official AFP statistics reveal the number of human trafficking related offences occurring within Victoria’s sex industry between 2005 and 2016.

Source: Australian Federal Police

Notes on Data

  1. Human trafficking related offences defined under ss 270.3, 270.5, 270.6, 270.7, 270.7C and 271.2 – 271.7 of the Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth).
  2. Years are calendar years.
  3. Number of offenders is not necessarily the same as the number of offences, as one offender may be charged with more than one offence.
  4. Number of offenders is not necessarily the same as the number of victims, as there may be more than one victim per offender.

In their book Trafficking in Persons in Australia: Myths and Realities, academics Andreas Schloenhardt and Jarrod Jolly summarise cases of human trafficking related crimes based on court records. Three case studies from Victoria:

Case Study 1 (Conviction)7

R v Wei Tang [2006] VCC 637; Rv Wei Tang (2007) 16 VR 454; R v Tang (2006) 237 CLR 1; R v Wei Tang (2009) 23 VR 332

Offending: 10 August 2002 – 31 May 2003, Melbourne, VIC

Ms Wei Tang was accused of having purchased five women from Thailand to work in debt bondage conditions in a legal brothel in Fitzroy, Melbourne. The women were recruited in Thailand and initially arrived on valid tourist visas. Ms Wei Tang bought each woman at a cost of AUD 20,000 and told the women they each owed her between AUD 40,000 and 45,000 which had to be repaid by working in her brothel, performing up to 900 sex jobs over a 4-6 month period.

Case Study 2 (Conviction)8

Ho, Ho, Leech et al

DPP (Cth) v Ho [2009] VSC 437; DPP v Ho [2009] VSC 495; Ho v R [2011] VSCa 344; Ho v R [2012] HCA Trans 199

Offending: 2003 – 2004, Melbourne, Vic and Sydney, NSW

This case involved six defendants who operated a sophisticated scheme that brought six or more Thai women, aged between 23 and 36, to Australia. The women were purchased from an agent in Thailand for a fee of AUD 20,000, brought to Australia, and then forced to work under debt contracts of AUD 81,000-94,000 in several licensed brothels in Melbourne and Sydney. Five of the women were aware of the nature of the work they had to engage in. The women had their passports seized on arrival, were supervised at all times, and frequently had to engage in unprotected sex. The women were, for the most part, unable to leave the brothel or their place of residence, to which they had to no key. They had to work in the brothel six days a week, with the option to work a seventh day for additional pay, which is how some of the women earned money to send back to their families.

Case Study 3 (Charges dropped)9


Offending: c 2010; Sydney, NSW and Melbourne, VIC

This case involves a Chinese woman (referred to as ‘Melbourne Linda’) who was charged on 12 November 2010 with sexual servitude and debt bondage offences. It was alleged that she lured two women from China to travel to Australia by promising them the opportunity to further their studies here. It was claimed that on arrival they were forced to work as sex workers in exploitative conditions for up to 15 hours a day, seven days a week. One of the alleged victims detailed in a police statement how she was afraid to leave because she was under constant supervision and that threats had been made against her family. On 26 March 2012 the charges against the accused were withdrawn after prosecutors decided there was insufficient prospect of securing a conviction after information surfaced that compromised the credibility of the victims. Also implicated in this case was a migration agent who was involved in a fraudulent application for a student visa for one of the victims.

Please note that NONE of the above cases reflect the consensual adult sex work that SWLRV seeks to decriminalise.

One way to assist victims of human trafficking within Victoria’s sex industry is to guarantee them immunity from prosecution should they come to the attention of the police.

No such guarantee exists for trafficking victims held in illegal brothels.

Last updated: 2 August 2019

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