My first memory of her was how small she was.  Her pale and blemish-free skin looked as if they had not seen a day of light. Her colour-treated hair was always held back neatly in a high ponytail.

She was well-groomed as how aestheticians should be - her eyebrows shaped perfectly above eyes enhanced with kohl and perfect blend of eye shadows. I was quite convinced I had the right visual of her when her name was brought up by Megan, my aesthetician.

"Poor Kathy. She looked the type who never had to do a day of hard labour.  This must be really hard for her," I said to Megan.

I was lying flat on my back with my eyes closed while Megan performed my monthly facial treatment in her home.

I normally loath the idea of participating in perfunctory conversations with my hairdresser and manicurist but for some reason, I like talking to Megan. Perhaps she comes across as someone who is sincere and not exploitative like many other professionals relying on commission. 

That day's conversation was particularly interesting and I haven't been able to take my mind off it.

"She told me that short of being whipped and chained at the ankles, it was exactly like those slaves you watch on the movies. I mean, can you imagine this happening now?" I could sense repulsion in Megan's voice as she moved on to give me a shoulder massage while the mask on my face slowly hardened to form a crust that was meant to nourish my problematic skin. 

Kathy and Megan used to work together at a beauty spa in an affluent neighbourhood in the city I live in. I got to know Megan when I used to patron the spa and she was my aesthetician.

More than three years ago, Megan made a leap of faith by leaving the spa to set up her own beauty parlour at home. She said she had enough of slogging away six days a week for someone else. Perhaps, the ultimatum came when her former boss paraded a five-digit Rolex watch she had just bought on a shopping trip to Hong Kong and went around asking all her commissioned aesthetician what they thought of the watch. 

I left the spa and followed her.

The conversation about Kathy came about when I asked Megan whether she had heard of those farming programmes in Australia where people go pick strawberries and apples. "They seem to be really popular," I said.

She gave my face a quick inspection after she completed her usual cleansing routine. "You're not getting enough sleep and you need to drink more water," she said before she proceeded to answer my question. "Uh-huh. Why? Are you interested?"

"Oh no. I have a friend who's thinking of taking a year off from work to do this. Someone else I know wants to do the same thing too. It's just funny that two people said the same thing to me in less than a month." I grimaced as she extracted the acnes on my forehead. A copy version of the theme song from Love Story played on the piano could be heard on the background. 

"Do you remember Kathy? She was one of the aestheticians at the spa. The really small girl, fair skin? She's working in a strawberry farm in Australia now."

I was expecting Megan to tell me how Kathy was enjoying the farm fresh air and stuffing herself with strawberries as big as cikus (sapodillas) while plucking them. I was wrong because for the next hour or so, Megan revealed the harrowing story of how her friend left home to become what most people would agree as modern-day slavery. 

According to Megan, Kathy left with a group of friends. Like Megan, she was probably fed-up with her work at the beauty spa and wanted something more lucrative.

An employment agent told them they could each easily earn US$2500 a month by just picking fruits at a farm in Australia. Such opportunity seemed too good to pass and they weren't really convinced until they were shown photos of the farm and accommodation. Everything looked lovely and sounded easy.

Working in Australia meant they had to obtain a working visa and this was where the agent came in. Apparently, each of them paid about US$1750 to the agent to sort out their paperwork.

It seems that a few days before they were to depart to Australia, they were told that their working visas were not ready and they would have to leave on a tourist visa while their agent would continue to work on getting them the correct paperwork.

Perhaps they did not want to forfeit their plane tickets or postpone such a golden opportunity since many of them had presumably quit their jobs by then and are in desperate need for income. I could only presume their travel arrangements and visa applications might have cost some of them their life savings. Whatever the reason was, they left for Australia without securing a work permit. Before leaving, they were told to delete the agent's phone numbers from their phones.

"Kathy told me she has muscular legs and her skin is tanned now. She said she's ugly now. She has to squat on her feet to pluck strawberries for about ten hours a day without much break and under the hot sun. She sent me photos of the farm and you can't see the end of the strawberry beds. It's that far. She said it's very tough for her. She cried every night for a month when she first started."

Megan continued, "Kathy said she never thought something like this would ever happen to her." 

According to Kathy, when they arrived at the farm after hours of driving from the city, they were brought to their accommodation. They were shocked by the condition of the place.

It was filthy, smelly and filled with all sorts of junk. It became obvious by then that decent living condition wasn't part of the deal. They spent days cleaning and clearing up the space to make it habitable. By then, the thought of being victims of a scam had slowly crept in since the reality of the place did not match the photos shown to them when they were still at home.

For the first month or so, they could not pick the strawberries because it wasn't time for harvesting and because they would only be paid for each basket of fruits picked, they were not able to earn any income right away.

On top of that, they had to pay for their own lodging and food. Apparently, mattresses were rented out at A$3 per night by the farm owner. Kathy said that this information was never disclosed to them by their agent. With no income, their expenses accumulated quickly and soon enough, they found themselves in debt, and still on a tourist visa.

"Why don't they report this?!" I sounded angry and to be honest, a tad judgmental.

"Kathy said she doesn't want trouble. In the beginning, when they complained to the owner, he told them that they are free to go as long as they pay off their debts. Kathy said she has no choice but to wait and pick as much fruits as she can so that she can earn some money, clears her debt and leaves the farm. Also many of her friends want to earn back the money they had spent to pay the agent," Megan explained. 

"Kathy told me that most of the workers there are Malaysians, Chinese and Thais. Apparently, the owner doesn't want to take anyone from Hong Kong because they are known to be vocal and they will stand up and fight. You know, we Malaysians are quite submissive. Always too scared to cause trouble."

I couldn't help but think the combination of not wanting to worry her family and the fear of humiliation and being judged by their family and friends were partly some of the reasons why Kathy had kept this from the authorities. I wondered whether I would have done the same if I was stuck in a situation like this.

Before my facial ended, I asked Megan to get information from Kathy on the agent and the farm. "I want to warn my friends about them," I said. 

On the same night while at home on the internet, I found out that the Australian High Commission is aware of such scam. They had posted a warning against fruit picking/harvesting scam on their website.

According to them, you can detect a scam if you are promised a quick working visa, if you receive an email (especially one that does not address you specifically) offering you either a guaranteed income or job, if a job advertisement requires you to send a fee to receive your start-up materials, if an advertisement only gives you a post office box address, and if the fruits do not coincide with the harvesting season.

Later that night, I received a message from Megan. Kathy had given her some vague information on the agent and the address of the farm, which appeared to be situated in Western Australia. No useful information turned up when I did a search of the agent's company and the farm address on the internet.

Before I called it a night, I received another message from Megan. It read "Kathy said don't let your friend come. Don't want your friend to go through all this."

If you suspect you might have been a victim of such scam, please report to the local police or at 



Published by Kay Leem