Rungnapha Kanbut, 57, is on trial in the NSW District Court after pleading not guilty to six charges including intentionally possessing a slave and dealing with the proceeds of crime.
Prosecutor Peter Neil SC in his opening address on April 9, said both of the women had been sex workers in Asia when they agreed—in 2004 and 2005—to travel to Australia for sex work.
The prosecutor said the jury would hear that when they arrived in Sydney they were taken to live with Kanbut, who told them they each had a $45,000 debt to pay off.
Neil said the first woman, who arrived in 2004 on a visitor visa and couldn’t speak English, was told to give Kanbut her passport for safe keeping.
She was also told she’d be given four days off a month but that didn’t happen and she worked long days in brothels across Sydney.
“At times when (the woman) had her period she was still required to work and, to conceal her menstruation from clients, she placed a sponge in her vagina,” the prosecutor said.
He said she was left in no doubt that she had to pay off her debt before she had money for herself—with the exception of tips.
Neil told the jury that in Australia the concept of slavery was “not the same as what many people in our community may consider slavery to be.”
He said the offence relevant to Kanbut’s charges was fundamentally concerned with “the power of control” she exercised while each woman was paying off her $45,000 debt.
The fact they came to Australia voluntarily for sex work didn’t prevent jurors from finding “that either or both of them was possessed—that is used—by the respondent akin to her owning them,” the prosecutor said.
But defence lawyer Jeffrey Clarke in his opening address told the jury there were two sides to the story and “clearly there are some issues in this case upon which the sides differ.”
He said there were issues with some of the women’s allegations but overall “the real issue here is whether or not what is being described by these witnesses amounts to slavery.”
“You won’t be surprised to know that the defence doesn’t totally agree with the Crown position as to what amounts to slavery,” Clarke said.
The trial continues.