Filipina Hostesses Forced Out of Work, USC Dornsife Professor Says

Rhacel Parreñas, professor of sociology, who researched Filipina hostesses in Tokyo, Japan, for nine months, concluded that the hostesses were not victims of sex trafficking and should not be denied visas.
ByEddie North-Hager

More than 70,000 women are being denied the opportunity to earn a decent wage because of rules created and enforced by the United States, according to USC Dornsife professor Rhacel Parreñas.

The sociologist testified before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights about sex trafficking on April 13.

The United States declared that Filipino hostesses who work in Japan are victims of human trafficking. According to the government, the women had been coerced through fraud to be prostitutes. To protect the women, U.S. officials pressured Japan to deny their visas.

The impact was immense as Filipina hostesses, who totaled nearly 80,000 in 2004, now number about 8,000.

According to Parreñas, the women were not prostitutes or victims of human trafficking. As hostesses, they were expected to flirt with customers and perhaps even strip. The women, she said, knew the terms of their employment.

With no fraud and no forced labor, the women did not meet the official definition of human trafficking, said Parreñas, professor of sociology.

“Filipina hostesses sell drinks, not sex,” she said. “None of the hostesses I encountered wanted to be rescued. The story is much more complicated. These are the breadwinners of their families. They were proud of themselves and respected back home.”

Parreñas spoke from experience. The researcher, who interviewed 56 Filipina hostesses in Tokyo during a nine-month study, worked as a hostess off and on for three months.

The unorthodox and seemingly dangerous on-the-ground fieldwork was necessary, she said, to gain the trust of the hostesses, whom she wanted to talk openly and honestly about their conditions.

“I had assumed that they were stigmatized by their occupation and that hostess work was a euphemism for prostitution,” Parreñas said.

The research is the subject of her new book, Illicit Flirtations: Labor, Migration and Sex Trafficking in Tokyo (Stanford University Press, 2012), which caps a career dedicated to the study of migrant workers forced to find work in a foreign land. Parreñas has studied the impact on the workers themselves and the spouses and children they leave behind.

Parreñas, a Filipino-American who grew up in Massachusetts, has studied Filipina workers in Italy, the Philippines, Japan and the United States for more than a decade.

“As a public sociologist, I do work in hopes it will lead to a public good and have an impact on the people I write about,” said Parreñas, who acknowledged that the women are exploited by employers.

Parreñas believes that Japan should focus on improving the work climate of the women instead of stopping them from voluntarily working by changing their visa requirements.

The most practical solution is to remove the middleman, she said. Club owners pay the middlemen brokers, who in turn pay the women. Controlling the purse strings allows the middleman too much control over the fate of the hostesses, according to the sociologist.

“It’s a terrible system,” Parreñas said. “The women can’t change their jobs and are often not paid until the end of their contact.”

Her research has not gone unnoticed by the U.S. State Department, which has defended its designation of Filipina hostesses as victims of human trafficking.