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Masseuses enslaved in South Africa seek DSI action

TWO MASSEUSES from Kancha-naburi have filed a complaint to the Department of Special Investigation against a recruitment company that they said enslaved them in South Africa and forced them to work to pay off a debt of about Bt100,000.

In the hope of finding a high-paying job abroad, Pawinee Sridee-iam, 56, and her sister Rungrasmee, 46, searched the Internet and came across a website advertising work as massage therapists in South Africa and promised to give high wages.

Pawinee, who is a massage trainer, did not hesitate to apply. She also asked her sister to join her.

"I decided to call this company and apply for this job because it offered a salary of at least Bt80,000 a month. That's a lot for me. The company's website was also certified by the Labour Ministry. So I was sure that the company would not lure me," she said.

When she responded to the job offer, the company asked her to demonstrate her ability by performing a massage at some place that did not look like a workplace. After she passed the test, the company explained that she would get a high salary from this job.

"Of course, when I heard that, I was like in a trance and quickly decided to go to South Africa," she said.

But when she asked about a contract, a company representative told her that the contract would be made when she arrived in South Africa.

Pawinee and Rungrasmee travelled to South Africa on November 4.

The employer picked them up at the airport in Cape Town and took them to their accommodations.

The employer confiscated their passports and travel documents, saying she would need them for work permits and immigration. But when Pawinee saw the contract that she had to sign with the company, she learned that it was all written in English and she could not completely understand the working conditions and salary.

"She told me to file a police complaint that our passports had been lost and she would give our passports back on the next day. At that time, I did not understand why," she said.

After staying in Cape Town for four days, they had to move to work in Johannesburg.

They were never given their passports back after they arrived in Johannesburg. The employer took them to the workplace and lodging in Johannesburg, which was totally different from the accommodation in Cape Town.

"It looked like a prison. Oh my god. I couldn't believe it. This place was surrounded by a high tension power line and dotted with many doors," she said.

"Some masseuses who worked there a long time told me that I was a new victim. When I heard this I was so scared," she said.

After working at this place for a few weeks, she found that the working conditions were not like what she had been told by the company's representative in Thailand. She was forced to work at least 12 hours a day. Her wages were cut by a large amount per month. Finally, she was forced to accept a "debt" and had to work to pay off the "debt" of about Bt100,000.

"The list of this 'debt' had been made out of the imagination of the employer. I had been never informed about this 'debt' before," she said.

After she knew that she had to pay off this "debt", she did want to work at this place and wanted to go back to her hometown.

"I had to call my husband to take our car to the pawnshop and get some money to pay for my "debt". If not, I would not be able to come back home," she said.

Fortunately, she could return to her hometown but she had to leave her sister alone in South Africa, as she did not have enough money to pay off her sister's "debt".

Pawinee has tried to ask for help from several state agencies including the DSI, Provincial Administration Department and Foreign Affairs Ministry to bring her sister back to Thailand. Finally, she could come back to her hometown on the condition that she had to pay off her "debt" with the company of Bt40,000.

Paisit Sungkahapong, a director of the DSI's anti-human trafficking unit, said his agency will next week start investigating the facts and persons behind this fraudulent employment in South Africa.

Pravit Khiengpol, director-general of the Employment Department, said there was no announcement via his agency's website to persuade Thais to work as massage attendants in South Africa. Most masseurs who went to work in South Africa were not sent by the department.

They had applied for a tourist visa to enter South Africa.

"We are ready to help them if the Foreign Affairs Ministry asks us to do so," he said.


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