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When is sex work 'decent work'?

The world is aiming to have ‘decent work for all’ by 2030. What could that look like for one of the most stigmatised professions in the world?

My name's is Liz Hilton. I'm from Empower Foundation, which is a sex worker organisation. I've been part of the Empower family since 1992. The reason why there's only me here (at the conference ‘Human trafficking, forced labour and modern slavery: understanding popular narratives and planning strategic action’, held by the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women in August 2017 in Bangkok, Thailand), and not the rest of Empower, is that the sex workers in Thailand are sick of talking about trafficking so they sent me.

Sam Okyere (oD): Well thank you for joining us. In the context of trafficking then, this is obviously an issue that has always been discussed but recently there has been news of raids on sex workers' premises. Would you be able to elaborate on that and some of the problems that sex workers face with raids?

Liz: I think the word trafficking, and the practice of trying to do something about trafficking, fell on us in 2001. So for 16 years sex workers in Thailand have been living and working on top of the idea of ‘anti-trafficking’, which people are calling now a modern form of slavery.

We actually think that it’s a modern form of abolition, because the whole framework has really not been useful to sex workers – whether they've been trafficked, whether they're in forced labour, whether they're working in sub-standard conditions, or whether they're working well. It hasn't been useful at all. It's been quite punitive. People have said that they focus on prevention, prosecution, and protection. But it's more like persecution really.

Recently there was a raid a little bit up the river from here. Entrapment operations have increased and sometimes the operations can go on for up to three months, while they try to collect evidence. These are followed by raids, and this raid was 50 armed soldiers at least to catch 22 little women. They must feel very brave. The women, six of them were Thai women but the remaining 16 women are migrant sex workers – so the consequences of the raid is much more serious for them.

It’s one stop shopping. They can raid for trafficking but then use a prostitution law, immigration law, migrant worker act – you can even do some drug testing if you like, or claim money laundering. We once were in a raid they even got them for playing music that has a copyright. So it's very one stop shopping.

Sam (oD): It's a real movable feast in terms of the bouquet of laws that could be used to carry out unjust measures in this arena. Given the fact that you said 16 of these women were migrants, would you would you be able to comment on the idea that anti-trafficking is really mainly about anti-migration? Is that something you found in your work?

Liz: Yeah, I did. It's racist and anti-migrant, and it's also sexist because there's a lot of focus on not allowing women to move around freely. You don't want to allow certain people – so the people who are poor, working class people from a different ethnicity – to move around. It's actually not anti-migration, because they do want some migrant workers. But they want who they want and they want them very controlled.

The movement of migrants and refugees is actually the movement of people. This is the campaign. They are showing exactly that borders should be open, and that people should be able to move as freely as money does.

Most people do not move with document and passing proper channels. That’s irregular migration. Regular migration is you go anywhere you can, however you can, to make your dream, and nobody dreams backwards. So if your dream is interrupted by bad working conditions, or interrupted by trafficking or interrupted by anti-trafficking, you still want to get out of that situation, find a better situation, and keep going.

But if you're unfortunate enough to be caught up in anti-trafficking it's go back to zero, because the end result for any anti-trafficking practice is deportation. That's what is at the end point now. It's reset to zero, and you go home ashamed because you haven't made good. There's usually some kind of stigma attached to you being sent home, penniless, and nothing is improved where you live so your dream has to start again.

Sam (oD): Indeed. Speaking of dreams, I’d like to hear a bit more about the situation here in Thailand. I think for most outsiders, when you talk about Thailand and sex workers, there’s this kind of utopian ideal that it's a nation where people can buy and sell sex. From the UK you've got tourists coming in with this idea – that it's all very open and accessible and there's no real sort of harassment of sex workers or the clients. Can you elaborate on the legality of sex work in Thailand?

Liz: In Thailand prostitution is illegal. It has been criminalised since 1960, and then the latest law was the 1996 Suppression and Prevention of Prostitution Act. It's illegal to buy and sell sex in Thailand. Yet the only people really caught are the women. Not the not the employer, and not the customer. We don't want anyone caught. Nobody's wrong.

Is prostitution accepted in Thailand? No, it's not. It's very stigmatised. It's not tolerated. People like to say tolerated. We say that sex workers are manipulated. Everybody wants to shut it down, clean it up, and sweep it away. Except when the money is coming in. Then we want to keep it open. So you shut one eye, you open the other one, and now prostitution makes up between 5%-10% of the Thailand's GDP.

Sam (oD): I think one of the lesser-explored dimensions to sex workers' rights is the economic part of it. So often we think about the dynamics of sex work in relation to individual benefit. So some might argue that, well it's work, first of all. It feeds families, which it does, and it puts money into people's pockets and food on the table. But we rarely speak on the national scale, in terms of contribution to GDP. Could you elaborate on that part of it?

Liz: I think what we know is that most sex workers in Thailand are mothers. About 80% are mothers before they start sex work. Many sex workers are supporting between five and eight other adults, and for them nobody is really working to eat. They're building the big dreams of the family, and it's a big job.

Economically, in comparison to all the other jobs they've done – it's not like they never did any other jobs, they've done them all, they've been through the list – they've chosen sex work as the one that's offering the best opportunities. Economically the comparison between sex work and other jobs is quite different. Women are earning at least double the minimum wage in sex work – undocumented migrants will be earning at least double the minimum wage, and then it goes up from there.

Economically sex work is much better than working in a factory.

Economically it's much better than working in a factory, working in the restaurant, things like that. The other thing is that it offers, at that level, is an opportunity, a chance. If you work in a factory for $10 a day, you're going $10 a day for the next 40 years. If you work in a karaoke bar for $10 a day, maybe tomorrow Sam will come in and he will give me an extra $20. It is a chance that other jobs don't offer.

These are the family providers of Thailand, and an informal welfare system of Thailand. It has been a long time since anybody did the research on this, but ILO research in 1998 found that sex workers in Thailand are sending home $300 million per year to rural areas. That's 1998, and we know it will have gone up since then, but $300 million per year to rural areas is larger than the government development projects and World Bank.

Sam (oD): I want us to move on now to this new obsession with numbers and indexes like the US Trafficking in Persons reports (TIPs), and the Global Slavery Index, and others. How have these transformed you know the whole project, if I can use that word, for good or bad?

Liz: The numbers have always been crazy about sex work, and they've always been crazy about sex work in Thailand. We don't really notice them, because the only number that matters is what the Thai government says – because that's who controls the budget, and that's who controls the policy.

Sam (oD): But you did say during the conference that TIP reports do affect Thailand…

Liz: The TIP report does, but it's not about the numbers. The TIP report affects all countries, not just Thailand, because the TIP report is tied to money and sanctions.  It’s like getting a bad report card from the headmaster, and this time it's Headmaster Trump. We didn't get one from him yet. We got a bad report card from Headmaster Obama, and from Headmaster Bush. It's nothing to do with trafficking, the report card. Nothing to do with women, nothing to do human rights, nothing to do with migrant labour rights. But what it means is then the government must react.

Sam (oD): Given your wealth of experience here in Thailand, what would you say has been the most remarkable change positively or negatively in sex workers' rights advocacy and activism?

Liz: I think the most important change is the continuing strength of the sex worker movement in Thailand, and the sustainability. I think that it's not remarkable in that it's surprising, but it's notable that nothing will change without that.

In terms of the outside, the biggest positive development has been the improvement in working conditions. Since 1998-99 working conditions in the sex industry developed and improved to the point that we now say that we have more women abused by anti-trafficking than women who are trafficked. This is a big development.

Working conditions in the Thai sex industry have improved to the point that we now say that we have more women abused by anti-trafficking than women who are trafficked.

I think stigma against women in Thailand has gone down. That doesn't mean stigma against sex work has gone down, but just that people aren't sure who to stigmatise because now many women will wear something sexy. In the old days only it was the sex workers, but now they're not sure – do you work in a bank or a bar? Should I look down on you or not? So this improvement of less stigma against women generally is also positive.

Sam (oD): In the most ideal scenario, if you were in power and were able to dictate the sort of policies you want to see, what ‘silver bullet’ or single policy would you want to see put in place?

Liz: There’s a difference between urgently and finally. There may be many things that need to happen urgently, but the finally thing is that we must remove the criminal law from prostitution and sex work. We have to get the police out of women's lives. This has to happen because the whole of everything starts from the criminalisation.

Women become criminals, not workers, or victims, not workers. The employers become mafia guys, not employers. Customers become pseudo-criminals and not customers. So they all have to be dealt with in a criminal framework, and a punitive framework, and it's a framework of suspicion. If everyone is moved into the labour framework – employers, customers, workers – then everyone is supposed to behave according to the labour law. We'd like to see outlaws made in-laws.

Red Umbrella March for Sex Work Solidarity in Vancouver, Canada. Sally T. Buck/flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Sam (oD): One final question. Empower engaged in a very remarkable exercise of trying to define decent work in sex work from a sex worker's point of view. Could you summarise what you found?

Liz: We began with the idea that people keep talking about exploitation in prostitution, yet nobody knows what that means. We thought we better find out what it means before someone else decides what it means, and so we spread out and asked each other what would this mean? It was about a year long process. There were 228 sex workers working on the project, and in the end the core community that we looked at was 3000 sex workers working in all sectors of the entertainment industry.

It's impossible to do sex work with human dignity when it's criminalised.

What we looked at was what would be decent sex work, what is unacceptable forms of sex work, and we used the ILO definitions of forced labour, debt bondage, decent work, decent work deficits. We just went with their definitions, and then also the Thai laws: the Thai national labour framework laws.

What we came out with was a very clear, measurable description of what is exploitation of prostitution in Thailand. We discovered there's about 20 violations of national labour law that sex workers live on top of every day, and that at long as there is criminal law, the ILO will never be able to succeed in its decent work agenda for decent sex work. That’s because one of the core principles of this work is human dignity, and it's impossible to do sex work with human dignity when it's criminalised. So yeah, the rest are easy to fix. It's just apply the labour law.

I think what became clear again and again, is that sex workers have a problem with the work, not the sex. The people from the outside think the sex is the problem when it's the work that's the problem.

Sam (oD): Anything else you'd like to say?

Liz: Yes, one thing. I hear a lot about people talking about the private sector – I've heard it around a few meetings now in different circumstances: business and human rights, that sort of thing. Every time I've asked and looked at it, no one's thinking about including the employers of sex workers and the sex workers' business within this ‘private sector’. If people are going to move to this private sector, and not bring the private sector of sex work to the table, we will be left behind again. We're going to be something else again. These guys need to be sat down and be with other employers, and realise they're employers. They're not mafia. They're employers.

About the authors

Empower is a Thai sex worker organisation that has been promoting rights and opportunities for sex workers since 1985. It is led and largely managed by sex workers in Thailand. The majority of its support comes from international donors e.g. Mama Cash, American Jewish World Service, but Empower also receives contributions from the Thai government as well as our own fundraising.

Sam Okyere is a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Nottingham. He is primarily interested in sociological, anthropological and policy analysis of childhood, child rights, human rights, social justice, (in)equality, globalisation, migration, racism and identity.


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