By Sylvia Yu Friedman
HONG KONG, Feb 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Pimp turned do-gooder Kaushic Biswas has swapped the brothel for the kitchen and is now teaching the sort of women he once exploited how to cook their way out of sex trafficking.
It is a total change from his Mumbai life back in the 1990s, when Biswas earned big money as a pimp, managing and selling women for sex after they had been trafficked into prostitution.
"Every night I broke down and cried. I cried because I was part of the exploitation," Biswas told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Biswas was a trained chef whose life took a bad turn in 1991 and has now come full circle. Biswas says he wants to help victims of trafficking, the sort of women he once sold for sex to be abused by the wealthy clients he calls "johns".
"Sometimes they forced me to watch."
Born in Calcutta, India, Biswas trained as a chef then worked in top hotels. But aged 21, he changed tack, discovered the underworld of Mumbai's discos, and worked for 18 months hooking up women with wealthy clients, many from the Middle East.
"I was lost and needed money to survive. I knew I wasn't supposed to do this," he said. "Many of these ladies cried with me. They were drinking, some of them took drugs. Drinking was like drinking water for them."
Something had to change. So Biswas bought a plane ticket to Thailand to escape Mumbai, working once more as a chef, first in a 5-star hotel in Thailand, next under his mentor in Hong Kong.
It was here that Biswas feels he found his true calling.
Biswas said he found solace in a church and joined fellow believers, setting up an outreach post in Chungking Mansion, home to some of the cheapest housing in the city.
He reached hundreds of drug addicts, dealers and refugees. This led to a later project that also supported domestic helpers trapped in debt bondage and migrant women working as prostitutes in Wanchai's notorious red-light district.
"We hope to train bar girls who want to leave the industry," said Biswas. "I'm a chef. That's my gift. [I want to] use it. Whether it's with prostitutes, drug addicts or refugees."
Taste of Hope - a social enterprise launched in June 2016 with church help - now offers free cooking classes and trains some of Hong Kong's most vulnerable people in how to run a small business. There was no mention of God in the classes attended by Thomson Reuters and Biswas instead used his kitchen skills and background in the sex trade to connect with the trainee chefs.
"Job training provides skills and alternatives so that [trafficking survivors] do not fall prey to economic pressures. But more importantly, it helps rebuild their values and identities," said Sandy Wong, Chair of the Anti-Human Trafficking Committee of Hong Kong Federation of Women Lawyers.
About 340,000 migrant women, mostly from the Philippines and Indonesia, work as domestic helpers in Hong Kong, according to a U.S. government "Trafficking in Persons" report.
Some employment agencies charge excessive placement fees or issue fraudulent debt contracts above the legal limit in Hong Kong, leading to debt bondage, the State Department report said. Traffickers trick women from the Philippines and Thailand to work in prostitution in bars, then wield control through crushing debt repayments and by withholding passports.
Last June, Biswas began the three-month cooking course in partnership with Harmony Baptist church in the red light area of Wanchai with a mission to reach trafficking victims.
Once a week, Biswas and his co-worker Preston Hartwick teach Indian cooking to about six to eight women, including victims of debt bondage and sex trafficking.
Kat, 23, is a bar girl and trafficking victim from the Philippines who recently joined the class. About a month ago, Kat says she was tricked into prostitution at a bar in Hong Kong. She was desperate to find work to support her daughter and ill mother. For the next three to four months, she will now have to pay off a debt to the agency that recruited her.
"I'm traumatized. There are three other women at my bar that feel the same. I always feel in danger. I take a risk every time I go out with a male customer," said Kat as she wept.
Domestic helper Maria Reyes, 34, is also new to the job training. Sole bread-winner for her 10-year-old son, husband and mother in the Philippines, Reyes was laden with debt after signing an agency contract twice that stipulated she pay back more than 80 percent of her monthly salary for seven months.
"It really helps me a lot I cannot afford [to pay for a] cooking class. I'm thinking about seriously opening my own business," said Reyes, who has worked in Hong Kong since 2012.
The church that partnered with Biswas said it is trying to help trafficked people get home to a normal family life.
"We feel that Taste of Hope's work gives them hope that they can take more control of their own future and get a job that also allows them to live with their families instead of overseas," said Pastor Chris Hartwick of Harmony Baptist church.
(Reporting by Sylvia Yu Friedman, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org) (Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths)