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Sex 'trade', not 'traffic'

Thailand's sex workers are off the streets, in safe workplaces. They don't want to be 'rescued'

Being a sex worker these days isn't what it used to be, at least for those whose rights are backed up by the Empower Foundation. Much has improved - no more pimps or mamasans, and fewer punches thrown their way. Being "rescued", though, causes them all sorts of problems.

Most people remain unaware of the dramatic new context in the flesh trade, Empower director Chantawipa Apisuk said at the recent release of a report, "Hit & Run: Sex Workers' Research on Anti-trafficking in Thailand".

"We have now reached a point in history where there are more women in the Thai sex industry being abused by anti-trafficking practices than there are women exploited by traffickers," she said.

The government and the agencies that abet its efforts to "help" prostitutes have, in many ways, gone too far in enforcing the Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act.

The modern sex worker has work tools apart from makeup and condoms, said Chantawipa, who founded Empower in 1985 to safeguard their rights. They have cell phones and the Internet. Rather than greedy pimps, their support network is centred on a trusted tuk-tuk driver or the local motorcycle-taxi guy who takes them around and protects them.

These people have designated workplaces - restaurants, massage parlours, go-go bars, beer bars or karaoke clubs. Their work might also entail dancing for or drinking beer with the customers.

More than 20,000 sex workers make use of Empower's contact points in 11 provinces in the North, Northeast and Central region, including several on the Burmese border.

Empower has seen the industry develop continuously through three decades and 10 governments. Sex work is now widely regarded as a quasi-legitimate profession, with its own form of employers and self-employed workers.

Inevitably, though, prostitution remains a crime in the eyes of many, and those plying the trade are treated accordingly.

But the kindlier view, that they are victims of human trafficking, isn't a great deal of help either, Chantawipa said. Legislation aimed at stopping the trafficking of people has had a serious adverse effect.

The "Hit & Run" report is an effort to assess the state of the profession. More than 200 sex workers helped the foundation conduct a survey over the course of 12 months, in bars, restaurants and brothels across the county and even into Burma and Laos.

"We trained them in legal rights," Chantawipa said, although some were already university graduates and several even had law degrees. "We call them our 'high-heeled human-rights defenders'."

It's a play on the term "barefoot lawyer" - a solicitor who cares about justice rather than fees - explains Liz Hilton. She's worked with the foundation for nearly 20 years and helped coordinated the project and the associated Rapid Action Training for Sex Workers.

"The first round of training was done in 12-month blocks in 2008 and 2009. There were 23 sex workers - men, women and transgender people."

The survey determined that more than 50,000 sex workers have been involved with Empower since it started, including migrants mainly from Laos, Burma, China and Cambodia.

Migration, it was noted, is part of the "culture" of sex work, and the brokers involved in transporting people are generally seen as helpful. Most don't charge exorbitant rates for their service.

One of the "high-heeled rights defenders", Sasumi from Mae Sai in Chiang Rai, said she often helps fellow sex workers with legal matters when they're arrested. She's been in the business since she was 20. She's now 27. "I've seen a lot of improvement in the workplaces," she said.

"We're better off there than taking a risk waiting around on the street. If better choices are available, then naturally we choose them."

Nang from Mukdahan, who also helped with the survey, said few women arrested under the anti-trafficking legislation know what it is. "They're just going to work, they think, so why are they being arrested?"

Mala moved to Mae Sot because she couldn't earn enough money there for her family. Muay moved across the border to Mae Sai, convinced that whatever Thailand offered had to be better than what she left. Picked up under the anti-trafficking law, they both got sent back.

"We came to build new lives for our families, not to be sent home empty-handed and ashamed," explained Dang Moo, another Burmese sex worker in Mae Sot.

Kiaw from Laos pleaded for understanding among the Thai public and authorities that sex workers prefer not to break any laws. "We aren't criminals. We're just honest people trying to build better lives." The women might build a house for their parents or put a kid brother through school.

But the anti-trafficking law regards sex workers as victims, so those who enforce it believe they are "rescuing" the prostitutes. That just makes things worse, say the sex workers.

"Before I was arrested I was working happily, had no debt, and was free to move around the city," said Nok, a Burmese. "Now I'm in debt, I'm scared most of the time, and it's not safe to move around. How can they call this 'help'?"

Once "rescued" and after a period of detainment, the foreign workers are deported (only to return at the first chance) and the Thais usually have to undergo vocational training.

"Thai society still looks at sex workers in the old context," Chantawipa said, and even the government's "modern" view of sex workers as victims is outdated. The aim now is to get the government and other concerned parties to stop using the word "victim", to stop putting trafficking and sex work in the same category.

Riddled with loopholes, the anti-trafficking law meanwhile is undercutting women's efforts in other areas, Chantawipa said. It confuses the organisations opposed to trafficking about sex workers' true status - are they criminals or the victims of criminals?

NEW CONTEXT

Empower's survey has determined that:

- Today's sex worker provides enough income to take good care of the family.

- Their workplace - usually an evening entertainment venue - has regulations, covering work schedule and monthly salary paid according to skill level. Thus, sex workers are employees.

- Gone, for the most part, are the days of random arrest, regular violence, pimps, the prostitution mafia and the "green harvest", when girls are recruited upcountry. In their place are helpful "older brothers" - the motorcycle-taxi or tuk-tuk driver, the bar manager.

- Sex workers now have hi-tech tools like smart phones and the Internet, and they're also skilled at using them.

Nighlife's tapestry

Empower launched its research project last month with a one-day exhibition at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, displaying the "Mida Tapestry", sewn by migrant sex workers as a way to document and show the impact police raids have on their lives. It carries a second message in that the detained sex workers are regularly forced or offered sewing lessons as a cure-all for social ills.


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