Blog by Xuan Li
Since the beginning of the internet era, the growing presence of cyber crimes has imposed great challenges to the governments. Different countries have adopted different laws and administrative regulations to maintain social order in cyber space. Cyber crimes take a wide range of forms. In this blog, consider the connections between human exploitation and cyber crime in the context of online gambling. In this case, criminals exploit information networks to commit fraud and other illegal activities, using technologies such as internet access, server hosting, web storage, or communications transfer, and illegal advertising and promotions. I introduce a cross-border case that has drawn little public attention to date, in which the online gambling is highly linked with human exploitation, human abduction and the violation of gambling laws.
In the southern part of Manila, the capital of the Philippines, a three-stories high wall surrounds Pearl Tower. While it looks like other, normal buildings from the outside, it is actually a complex of hundreds of gambling companies making up the ‘Solarie Oriental Conglomerate’. The people who work for this giant corporation nickname it the ‘Solarie Oriental Prison’(Feilvbin huaren wang 菲律宾华人网 2018). Barbed wire over a meter high adorns the top of the wall. Security guards armed with guns patrol all the entrances and exits. Guns are not the only thing keeping workers trapped here—they are strictly monitored, their passports and identity documents confiscated, and trapped in debt that they can never repay. For many workers who make their way to the Pearl Tower chasing promises of decent jobs, escape can only be obtained at a high price.
Working conditions at the Solarie Oriental Prison
Thousands of Chinese citizens are brought to the Pearl Tower through domestic intermediary agencies, which recruit in the name of high-paying overseas labor services such as office clerks and typists, through an array of recruitment fairs and online job websites. Workers are often indebted to these recruiters—ultimately trapping them in situations of exploitation before they even begin their new jobs. Then, the moment new overseas workers set foot in the complex, their passports are confiscated. They work at least 12 hours a day, are allowed only one day off to rest per month, and huddle in dormitories housing 8-12 people when their work day ends (Hei Maozi 黑帽子 2018).
While many workers consider fleeing, they are deterred by the fact that their passports have been taken from them—leaving them vulnerable in a foreign country, without a way to establish a new life in the Philippines or to make their way home. The building’s armed guards reinforce the sense of danger and risk at the thought of fleeing. They patrol inside the building, and stand sentinel with guns outside (Duowei 多维 2018). This makes escaping without the permission of the employers out of the question. Workers are only set free if they can afford a high break-up fee, ranging from thousands to tens of thousands of yuan. Many of those who cannot afford to leave have to work to repay debts, and ultimately help set up mechanisms to lure and trap others as victims, just as they have been.
In the ‘Solarie Oriental Prison’, workers are required to comply with rigorous regulations. In the office, employees’ personal mobile phones are handed in, and can only be retrieved at the end of the work day. Staff are monitored constantly. Except for the toilets, cameras cover every inch of the building, capturing a full 360-degree angle. Managers patrol the offices regularly, checking their office mobiles and laptops to police violations of company rules. There are security patrols in the corridors, corners, and stairways of the building. Employees may be checked at any time. And every rule is linked with fines: not wearing a badge leads to a fine of 5,000 pesos (about $255 USD); taking pictures in any area of the building, a fine of 100,000 Peso (about $5,105 USD); connecting a private mobile phone to the office WiFi leads to immediate termination including the unaffordable break-up fee.
Both victims and perpetrators?
A worker at the Solarie Oriental confessed
I know my daily work is immoral and illegal, and I want to leave on the first day of my visit. But I can’t afford to pay the break-up fee. So I have to go forward, I am a man but I have to act and talk like a woman all day long to seduce male customers. My head is exploding, and my personality is split apart (Hai na bian 海那边 2018).
What on earth do these gambling companies do? Persuade people to gamble online, through a system that increases the likelihood of losing money the longer you gamble. At work, each worker has five or six mobile phones in front of them. Each mobile phone has a note on it, with three different identities: “commissioner”, “male player” and “female player”. Often, male workers pretend to be an attractive woman, using flirting and sometimes erotic words to seduce potential customers to gamble, using phrases like:
Hey, little brother, if you like me, please recharge more money and then I can get off work early and chat with you.
This fake female identity devised by the company is a full package. The identity includes a full online persona, backed up by posted pictures, so that suspicious customers who check the online profile will believe them to be a real female. Online gambling here goes hand in hand with pornographic content. Several women are hired to air live pornographic broadcasts at fixed times every day. To watch live broadcasts, customers have to recharge their online gambling accounts with a specified amount of money. Through erotic enticement, workers also encourage players to involve their friends and relatives.
Very often, the deceitful ‘persuasion’ tactics are plotted collectively by a group of workers, specializing in acting out different identities, to deceive a handful of potential customers in similar situations (Urumqi Private Detective 乌鲁木齐私家侦探 2018). For instance, for players considering quitting gambling because of losses, workers will play out a show in front of them. A pop-up will appear in front of the customer, showing how another ‘player’ (in reality a worker) earned a large amount of money through gambling. Other workers play as supporting actors, chanting how brilliant and far-sighted this ‘player’ is. The leading actor will then reply with an easy tone: ‘Just luck’. This trivial plot tricks many players into continuing gambling, believing it possible to ‘win big’. Because online gambling is illegal in China, online groups transfer potential customers to a number of backup sites to continue the scam if the sites they are using are spotted and shut down.
The Philippines’ gambling boom
The Philippines are now one of the region’s most popular destinations for gambling. Foreign investment is flooding into the capital’s lucrative hotel and casino industry, and Manila is starting to look like a formidable rival to the nearby gambling tourist trap of Macau (Gambling.com 2018).. In 2013, the Philippines invested $1.2 billion (USD) in physical Solarie , planning to make the Philippines the third largest gambling center in Southeast Asia in the next decade.(Fenghuang wang 凤凰网 2013). The Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (Pagcor) is responsible for licencing the nation’s gambling operations, and runs 13 casinos across the country, with 50% of the revenues going straight to the national treasury. In terms of online gambling, while the main part of the country is banned from placing bets online in their own homes (Gambling.com 2018), the Philippines legally allows online gaming offered by offshore based sites (foreign-based online casinos) where online gaming is allowed in their jurisdiction (Focus Gaming News 2019). In other words, it is legal for players in the Philippines to use mobile casino sites if those sites are licensed, regulated, and outside the Philippines.
By the end of 2016, the Pagcor began issuing a new licence called Philippine Offshore Gaming Operation (POGO) certification for online gambling. In 2017, online gambling revenue in the Philippines reportedly hit $184 million (USD), a 14 per cent increase from 2016 (Phila and Zheng 2018). This is hardly surprising, since the $140 million (USD) raised from the annual licensing fees alone made online gambling the third-biggest source of government revenue in 2018, behind taxes and customs(Philip 2019).
However, since online bets are illegal in mainland China, opening counts on a China-based site where online gambling is forbidden should be deemed as illegal according to the law of the Philippines. In the past few years, many Chinese people from Fujian, Guangdong, and Guangxi province have gone to the Philippines to engage in online gambling (Taoli ge 套利哥 2018). Many Chinese brokers cooperate with gambling companies to deceive or seduce Chinese citizens into overseas labor transfer. They were promised high-paying jobs, but are instead working in near-slave-like conditions.
A call to action in the face of complexity
This type of “prison” does not only happen in the Philippines, but there are incidents in countries such as Malaysia as well. Here is narration from a victim told to the local police when the police cracked down the criminal sites.
I was told that I came here for a well-paid office typist job, and after knowing it was illegal engagement, I asked them to let me return to China. But I was imprisoned in a small room and beaten in chains (World Gaming Information 2018).
Ultimately, workers who are transferred overseas are both victims and perpetrators. They suffer from high-intensity working hours, bad working environments, and their physical and psychological well-being are adversely affected. At the same time, they form part of a criminal network using a multitude of tactics, often related to the pornographic content, to seduce potential customers into illegal online gambling. This is a large chain of abduction, fraud, and forced across national borders, which challenges human rights and justice. This underexplored area needs greater media coverage, to alert the public to the deceitful tactics employed and prevent more people from becoming victims of exploitation, debt bondage, and forced labour.. Weak policing , weak international frameworks, arbitrary practices and punishments to offenses in the jusriditions can inhibit effective measures to address the problem. Governments also must improve collaboration and negotiation across different national borders and different sectors and enact and strictly implement proper non-conflictual laws in order to tackle this complex and multi-faceted issue. lauch awareness-raising campaigns among the public
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Hai na bian 海那边. 2018. “Zai Feilvbin, wo guo le liang nian burenbugui bunanbulv de rizi 在菲律宾，我过了两年不人不鬼、不男不女的日子 (My terrible life in the Philippines).” 知乎专栏. https://zhuanlan.zhihu.com/p/45746934.
Hei Maozi 黑帽子. 2018. “Jie Mi Feilvbin Suolaier Dongfang Jianyu 揭秘菲律宾索莱尔东方监狱 (The Exposure of the Solarie Oriental Prison).” https://zhuanlan.zhihu.com/p/47092214.
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