AFP Charges WA Pair Over Debt Bondage Offences

A West Australian couple is expected to face Perth Magistrates Court today (14 June, 2024) charged with debt bondage, falsifying visa documents and passport offences after an AFP human trafficking investigation.

The AFP alleges the man, 32, and woman, 37, provided false details on visa applications for a foreign citizen who came to Australia in late 2023 to work as a masseuse in their business in regional WA.

The couple allegedly illegally took the woman’s passport, underpaid her and forced her to pay off debts that were allegedly excessive or unreasonably allocated to her.

The man and woman, who live in Ocean Reef, were charged last month (May, 2024) after the AFP investigated the alleged mistreatment of the worker.

The woman, 36, a trained masseuse, came to Australia after answering an advertisement in the Philippines for massage therapists to work at the couple’s business.

Police allege the couple arranged a tourist visa, rather than a work visa, for the woman by submitting false details on the documents and told her they would also arrange a visa for her to study once she reached Australia.

The employers allegedly requested the 36-year-old’s passport when they collected her from Perth airport in September 2023, to which she complied. When she started work later that week, they provided a list of expenses that would be deducted from her pay, which allegedly included future student visa costs and workplace consumables such as massage oils.

Police allege the woman, 36, was not given official pay slips, was advised not to socialise in the local community and lived at the business.

Several weeks later, the 36-year-old went to Perth for an English language test for her student visa application. While in Perth, the man, 32, allegedly provided cash for her to deposit into her account to satisfy the requirements for the visa. He allegedly organised for her to deposit the cash in smaller amounts over multiple days. After she received a bank statement with the required total, she allegedly had to withdraw the money in multiple smaller amounts and return it to the man.

The AFP alleges the couple later told the woman she also owed them fees relating to the English exam, a student visa and course tuition, as well as the cost of a new machine for the massage business.

Despite the couple allegedly telling the woman to pay the tuition fees, they also allegedly told her she could not attend the course because it was in Perth, but that someone would attend on her behalf so her enrolment was not cancelled.

The man allegedly later told the woman, 36, that her student visa application had been declined but refused to show her the documentation. Police allege the couple falsified her signature on a document to withdraw the application before it was assessed.

The employers also allegedly refused repeated requests from the woman to provide an itemised list of the expenses they claimed she owed.

Police will allege that when the woman complained about her pay and conditions, the man refused her requests to return her passport.

AFP Human Trafficking Team acting Sergeant Kevin Loermans said slavery-like practices, including debt bondage, occurred when people were subjected to conditions to which they had not agreed; the value of their services was not reasonably applied against their alleged debts; or they were coerced, threatened or deceived into working against their will because they did not consider they were free to leave their place of employment.

“Criminals can generate hundreds of thousands of dollars profiting off vulnerable individuals who may feel unwilling or unable to report exploitative conditions out of fear of retribution by perpetrators, social isolation and financial dependence on offenders,” a/Sgt Loermans said.

He said the AFP’s focus in human trafficking investigations was the safety, health and welfare of victims and potential victims.

“All workers in Australia are entitled to a minimum wage and certain conditions and it is illegal to retain someone’s passport without their permission,” a/Sgt Loermans said.

“We urge individuals to be aware of the indicators of slavery-like practices and report anything that may seem suspicious.”

The man, 32, a Chinese national, and the woman, 37, have each been charged with:

  • One count of engaging in conduct that caused a person to enter into debt bondage, contrary to section 270.7C of the Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth). The maximum penalty for this offence is four years’ imprisonment;
  • One count of having control of a foreign travel document, being a passport belonging to another person, contrary to section 21(4) of the Foreign Passports (Law Enforcement and Security) Act 2005 (Cth). The maximum penalty for this offence is 10 years’ imprisonment; and
  • One count of delivered to a person performing functions under the Migration Act 1958 (Cth), multiple documents containing information that is false in connection with the entry and immigration clearance of a non-citizen, with an application for a visa to enter Australia and a further visa permitting the non-citizen to remain in Australia, contrary to section 234 of the Migration Act 1958 (Cth). The maximum penalty for this offence is 10 years’ imprisonment.

If you suspect that you or another person is being exploited or is at risk of being exploited, help is available. Call 131 AFP (237) or report via the AFP website.

If you have immediate concerns for your safety, the safety of another person, or there is an emergency, dial Triple Zero (000).

If you or someone you know is exploited at work in Australia, visit the Work Right Hub

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