Masseuse forced to work against will: cops

A Perth couple are facing human trafficking offences. Picture: NCA NewsWire / David Swift

A couple have been charged with human trafficking offences after they allegedly lured a migrant worker to Australia on false promises.

The alleged victim, a 36-year old woman, was a trained masseuse and came to Australia in September 2023 after she applied for a job she saw advertised in the Philippines for massage therapists to work at the couple’s business.

Australian Federal Police alleged the couple told the victim they would arrange a visa for her to study once she reached Australia.

When the woman arrived in Perth for her new job, officers claimed the couple withheld her passport, forced her to work against her will, underpaid her and made her pay for debts that were unreasonable.

Yuteng Zhang, 32, a Chinese national, and Jess Fang Ching Tang, 37, from Ocean Reef in Perth’s north were charged by Australian Federal Police last month and were due to appear in the Perth Magistrates Court on Friday, but the matter was adjourned.

The couple have been charged with forcing the woman into a debt bondage, controlling her foreign passport and providing false information on her visa application.

A Perth couple who allegedly lured a trained masseuse to Western Australia for work, then took away her passport and made her work against her will are facing a string of human trafficking offences.

Police allege they arranged a tourist visa for the woman, rather than a work visa, submitted false details on the documents and told her they would arrange a visa for her to study in Australia once she arrived in the country.

The couple met the woman at Perth airport where police allege they took her passport from her. When she started work later that week, police say the couple provided her with a list of expenses that would be deducted from her pay.

Police claim the woman was told she had to pay for future student visa costs and workplace items such as massage oils. They further allege that she was not given any official pay slips, was told not to socialise in the local community and was forced to live at the business.

woman getting a back massage
The woman came to Perth from the Philippines to work as a massage therapist. Picture: iStock

The woman went to Perth for an English language test for her student visa application several weeks later. While she was in Perth, police allege Mr Zhang gave her cash to deposit into her bank account to satisfy her visa requirements.

It’s also alleged the woman was told to deposit the cash in smaller amounts over multiple days. After she received a bank statement with the required total, she was allegedly forced to withdraw the money in small amounts and return it to Mr Zhang.

The woman claimed she was told by the couple that she owed them fees for an 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 that she could not attend the course because it was in Perth but someone would attend on her behalf so her enrolment was not cancelled.

A female receiving a massage with tropical flowers
When she arrived, the couple allegedly took her passport and gave her a list of expenses she had to pay. Picture: iStock

Mr Zhang also allegedly told the woman that her student visa application had been declined but refused to show her the documentation. Police allege the couple forged her signature on a document to withdraw her application before it was assessed and repeatedly refused to give her a list of the expenses they claimed she owed.

Police also allege that when the woman complained about her pay and conditions, Mr Zhang 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,” he said.

Australian Federal Police has charged the couple with human trafficking offences. Picture: NCA NewsWire / David Swift

Sergeant Loermans said 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,” he said.

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

The maximum penalty for the offences is 10 years imprisonment.

The couple are due before the Perth Magistrates Court on June 28.