Supplementary Material

The Contested Legacies of Indigenous Debt Bondage in Southeast Asia: Indebtedness in the Vietnamese Sex Sector

By Nicolas Lainez


ABSTRACT The modern-slavery paradigm promotes analogies between contemporary trafficking and the transatlantic, white and indigenous slave trade. The analogy some scholars use to address debt bondage in past and present Southeast Asia prompted me to consider the hypothesis that the debts incurred by Vietnamese sex workers with moneylenders, procurers, and migration brokers are a remnant of indigenous slavery. However, the ethnographic and legalistic study of debt in the Vietnamese sex sector across Southeast Asia in relation to debt-bondage traditions provides limited support to the transhistorical thesis. Nonetheless, it throws light on the creditor-debtor relationship and shows that sex workers need credit to finance production and social reproduction in a region undergoing rapid capitalist development, and that because of their exclusion from financial, labor and labor migration markets, they access it through personalized arrangements that generate strong obligations and dependencies with the potential for restrictions of freedom, in a social structure that promotes patronage, vertical bonding, and dependency. [debt, (modern) slavery, trafficking, sex work, migration, Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore]


Downtown Châu Đốc where street sex workers solicited and sold lottery tickets. The two-story white house in front of the pagoda on the right was the headquarters of the mass organization Women’s Union. In the background, we see private banks that began to mushroom in that town in the 2000s (25/11/2009, photo by Nicolas Lainez).

Many sex workers and their families gambled fervently, which increased personal and familial levels of debt in Châu Đốc. In this picture, a sex worker, her mother, and their neighbors are playing roulette after the midday nap, just before the 4 p.m. radio announcement of the national lottery results that gathers people together (01/08/2009, photo by Nicolas Lainez).

On the left, we can see the Vietnamese slum of Chbbar Ampov in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where numerous destitute families and sex workers lived. On the right, a Vietnamese child is playing in front of a shack made of wood, bamboo, and recycled materials (01/08/2009, photo by Nicolas Lainez).

A Vietnamese family poses in their shack in Chbbar Ampov, Phnom Penh. Vietnamese migrants and long-term residents are marginalized and excluded from formal credit markets. Their only source of credit is informal moneylenders who propose “collected” and “standing” loans at high interest rates (01/08/2009, photo by Nicolas Lainez).

A young Vietnamese sex worker walks in the Blue Zone stretch on Joo Chiat Road, the main Vietnamese red light district in Singapore (15/03/2013, photo by Nicolas Lainez).

This picture shows the Blue Zone stretch on Joo Chiat Road. The popular Blue Lagoon pub where many Vietnamese sex workers congregated closed its doors in late 2010 (27/08/2010, photo by Nicolas Lainez).

Many Vietnamese sex workers and their patrons gathered in this popular street restaurant on Sims Avenue in Geylang, Singapore’s main red-light district. This restaurant and many other outlets shut their doors after the Singaporean government implemented a ban on public drinking in Geylang and Little India from 7 a.m. on Saturday to 7 a.m. Monday in 2015, in response to the riots that took place in Little India in 2013 (19/11/2011, photo by Nicolas Lainez).

A young sex worker is sleeping in a room provided by her broker Oanh in an apartment located in Joo Chiat. Oanh facilitated the circular migration of sex workers from Vietnam. Typically, two women shared a single mattress for $7 a night (21/09/2010, photo by Nicolas Lainez).

The author lived for five months in this room, located in the apartment of a Vietnamese broker facilitating the unsanctioned migration of Vietnamese sex workers to Joo Chiat in Singapore (20/11/2010, photo by Nicolas Lainez).

My research assistant, Tạ Mỹ Ngân, has a chat with the broker Oanh and her sister at a popular eatery where the Vietnamese sex migrant community gathers in Joo Chiat. Brokers take their new recruits to the eateries of Joo Chiat. Colleagues, friends, former sex workers married to Singaporeans, lovers, and regular clients regularly pay for rounds of beer and food. These gatherings allow beginners to eat and drink for free while familiarizing themselves with their new working environment. The broker uses these meetings to maintain her personal network. Participation in these gatherings provides rich and unique data, but obliges the researcher to drink vast amounts of alcohol, and pay for rounds of beer and food. The following morning, continuing with work, and, in particular, transcribing fieldnotes from the previous night with a hangover, proves to be a challenge (08/10/2010, photo by Nicolas Lainez).

My research assistant, Tạ Mỹ Ngân, transcribing interviews in the apartment of the Vietnamese broker where we lived and conducted fieldwork (10/11/2010, photo by Nicolas Lainez).

The author is playing cards with street sellers in Châu Đốc (07/01/2009, photo by Tạ Mỹ Ngân).

These fieldnotes were taken during the first interview with an informant in Châu Đốc. My research assistant, Tạ Mỹ Ngân, and I drew up a kinship diagram based on this interview, so as to establish the socioeconomic profile of informant and his/her family, and to map the economics of care and intergenerational support and dependency within generations. The following interviews allow for a more in-depth examination of family relationships and debt and credit issues (16/04/2009, photo by Nicolas Lainez).

This legal record refers to the prosecution of a Vietnamese broker who was charged for harboring and procuring Vietnamese sex workers in Singapore. One of the points of contention was whether she had deceived and indebted a migrant sex worker.This cover of a sensationalistic media report about trafficking in Singapore was published in The Straits Times on June 11, 2011. An entire section reports on migrant sex workers, exploitation, and debt bondage.

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