One day I met a beautiful looking girl in Port of Spain. She was tall, well spoken and her attire made her very attractive; 'sexy' is probably a better word. She smelt like a rose. "Do you want to be an exotic dancer?" she asked. - from A Piece of Me by Marlene Hazel.
The author is blunt: "Some say you don't have to make fares but when you reach up there you have to. There is no system in place anywhere I've gone in the Caribbean where you only have to dance. It's totally different in America and England, I hear. I have a friend in the States who says you could just dance and you only do business if you want."
Marlene Hazel was once Monica. Monica danced and "did business" throughout the region--Barbados, St. Lucia, Antigua, St. Maarten. She eventually became an agent, recruiting girls from local strip bars to work at joints in other Caribbean countries. With more valuable currencies, more horny tourists and thousands of local Johns in the offering, a steady stream of girls is heading higher up the island chain to make money. They've got lots of company.
"There are plenty Jamaicans and Guyanese," Hazel says. "In St. Maarten there are also many girls from Santo Domingo."
Hazel has written A Piece of Me, a book in which she skims her turbulent past. Physical and sexual abuse as a child. Early and frequent motherhood. Poverty.
Chapter four is The Exotic Dancer. In our interview an articulate and straightforward Hazel fleshes out her written account, discussing in detail the movement, gains and losses of club-based commercial sex workers throughout the region.
"The club owners used to pay me US$100 for each girl I got. I'd look for girls in all the local spots and ask
if they wanted to make more money," Hazel reports. Job requirements: an attractive face, a trim midsection and a good shape. According to Hazel all the girls are over 18. Light brown skin is an asset in most markets. Exotic dancers, as it turns out, need not be spectacular movers at all.
"Once you from Trinidad you know how to do some kind of dancing," she says. "You could always learn how to dance. And when you see the money coming in you realise you could do all kind of things."
The illegal migration of these women is orchestrated through a well-oiled system. Club owner buys ticket. Girl is briefed. She collects ticket at airport. She boards plane. She lands. She lies to immigration: "I'm here on vacation. A friend foot the bill. This is where I'm staying." Club owner collects girl at the airport.
"On arrival they would take the passport and return ticket and hold it until you pay back. Some continue to hold the passport so they can control you. You have a verbal contract to be there for, say, three months. They don't give it back to you until the day they put you on a plane. If you're not working out they're entitled to send you back home," she explains.
Hazel says that club owners often have links with immigration officials that allow them to get girls through. They also get tip-offs on immigration raids. She was once phoned at a hotel in Antigua and told to remain there because immigration officers were on their way to the club.
Living accommodations vary. Her apartments in St Lucia and St. Maarten were top notch. Hot water. Cooking utensils. Four girls to a clean, spacious bedroom. In Antigua, she says, she lived in squalor.
"It was like the Beetham. You have to bathe outside. You living in a 10 by 10 board room. The toilet outside. Fowl in the yard. Rats running. In the day they taking off your lights. You don't know what you going to meet. Many agents lie and tell girls the place really nice," Hazel says.
In some countries there are shopping days and off days. Others demand that the girls work all week. But the islands have many things in common. All the set-ups include a manager (usually a woman) to oversee and organise the girls. They collect rent. They dish out orders. Some even force the girls to save:
"You have something called a box and everyday you have to put money in it, kind of like a sou-sou. You don't get it until you're ready to leave."
There is also a uniform system for healthcare.
"They have a doctor who comes in. Every Monday you have to visit him for a check-up. You have to take an AIDS test from the moment you land. One time I sent up a girl who was HIV positive and they sent her back one time," Hazel remembers.
The girls are told to use condoms. Nothing more. No information is given on sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and safe sex. And they have to buy their own rubbers: "They have them selling there. They tell you do not have sex without them but a lot of men come in and ask you to do it without a condom because they like it raw. Maybe some girls do. They say 'he ain't looking sick'."
The region's clubs even have a shared floor plan. A circular or U-shaped stage is built around a bar. Hazel remembers a girl complaining that she'd been promised a pole. The facilities are basic. Stage. Men. Drinks. Women within reach.
In St Lucia and St Maarten her clientele was mostly cruise ship-delivered tourists. In Antigua foreigners came during the day while nationals got their fix at night. ("The tourists are no problem," she says. "Some are cheap and some are willing to pay. They like a lot of freaky stuff like two women one time.") But in Bim nationals fuel a booming trade.
"Barbados is a really good country. The value of the money is a lot more and a lot of local men come and do business. One night I made over BD$1500," Hazel recalls.
She says that money is every girl's motivation. Some want to build a house. Some want to buy expensive clothes. Many want to take care of their children. A few managers let girls use their passports to wire money home. Otherwise they'd have to depend on someone to deliver the cash to their families.
Hazel confirms that the working environment is rife with emotional and physical torment. Managers are often verbally abusive. ("They feel they own you. Especially if you aint making money or not paying rent.") There is physical violence among the girls themselves. ("A fella might come to the club and pretend to like you and when you gone he move to a next girl. With some people that does cause fight.")
And as illegal migrants, the girls aren't protected by the law.
"You don't have rights,” Hazel says. “In Antigua someone run in the club and planass a girl and nothing came of it.”