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Interview: ‘A group of women recognising each other as equals’

Members of Empower advocate for the decriminalisation of sex work. (Photo: Empower / Facebook)

Empower is an organization that advocates for sex workers’ rights in Thailand. Liz Hilton has worked with Empower for 24 years and sat down to talk to DVB about the current conditions for sex workers in Thailand and if there has been any improvements in the working conditions for women.

Question: So what brought you to Thailand to work with Empower?

Answer: I came to do some stuff with their health I think it was originally, but Empower started well before that. It started in 1984 in Bangkok when a group of Thai sex workers and an activist just met up. They didn’t mean to start anything — it was an accident. They thought they were just having drinks. So it started as drinking beer together and sharing life like women do. At that stage Phi Noi [Empower founder and director Chantiwita Apisuk] had a lot of English, which was unusual at that time to find a Thai woman with so much English, so the sex workers in Patpong were excited to find somebody who could help them talk to their employers (a lot of employers in Patpong were Westerners) and also they wanted to learn how to talk to their customers.

I think the story of how Empower began is important as it didn’t begin as an outside organisation having an idea to talk about HIV or to talk about legal change, it was a group of women recognising each other as equals, as human beings having equal dreams and equal rights, and it hasn’t changed since those days.

Q: Who runs Empower?

A: Everything that Empower does comes from what sex workers want and need and say.

Largely it is managed and run by sex workers themselves. We are a nationwide network and since we began, about 50,000 sex workers have been apart of Empower.

What does Empower do and where are we sitting right now?

You are sitting in our Can Do Bar. The difference here is this bar was created and run by sex workers, so it is a working model of the ideal working conditions for sex workers in Thailand: That means that the physical health and safety of the workplace is under the normal health and occupational laws of Thailand, which cover all your working hours and all your benefits and protections are in place.

If the women are here out waving on the street, “Hello, where you go?” That’s because they have chosen to do that. But there is no requirement that they do that. We don’t break any laws here. We see that sex is personal business, if you come tomorrow night and you go with a customer that’s your business, we don’t need to know if you are going for sex, to another place, to another bar, or shopping. That’s your business. If you or the guy you are going with want to grab some condoms or talk to the staff about safer sex you can. If you feel nervous, you can join our safety programme before you go. This is just normal adult behaviour. We don’t have any rules, any woman can come here and do anything they would like to do.

What are other places for sex workers like in comparison? How do their working conditions differ?

In other places, some women will be on a salary but most women will be working on a commission of how many drinks are bought for them. Those have to be alcoholic drinks, so if you don’t want to drink, too bad. In some of the places, you have a number of drinks you have to have or else you will get your salary cut — that’s about 120 drinks per month. Some places also have a customer quota, so the customer has to pay the bar to take you away from work, even if they are not paying the salary to you. They can also put a quota on that, such as 10-15 customers a month, or you have your salary cut. There is also a new push lately to weigh you before you get your salary, and you will have your salary cut per kilo over your designated weight. All these kinds of salary deductions are not legal, but they are a culture in the sex industry, because the labour law is not applied. So employers make up their own law.

Is sex work illegal in Thailand?

It’s illegal, it is against the law. Some say it’s tolerated. It’s not — it’s manipulated. It wasn’t illegal before 1960, but since 1960 prostitution was made illegal in Thailand. That law was adjusted a little bit in 1996 to make it a lesser crime, but it is still a crime to buy yourself sex in Thailand.

What happened with the recent raid in Bangkok where sex workers were working?

The raid happened 2 months ago now. But in March there was a report made [that said] there were three underage workers at the Nataree soapy massage parlour. I don’t know why they left the three underage workers there, but they did. And they continued to do an entrapment operation. They spent three months gathering evidence and then on 7 June, ministers of the police, the interior, an NGO from New Zealand and some other random people mounted a raid on the massage parlour. Nataree Massage Parlour is about a five-storey building, it sits in an area where there are a lot of massage buildings. They look like five-star hotels. There are 400 women working in the parlour on shift work, they come and go and women working there are earning US$2,000-3,000 a month average, which is a high income. So the raid was conducted in the name of anti-trafficking, people who are under the age of 18.

They thought 15 were underage and so they were tested by using their bones and their teeth to judge their age. Those medical tests were without consent — which is an abuse. They were taken to the social-welfare detention and the rest, 116 women, they were not just released, they were processed through crimes that have nothing to do with human trafficking. They were all charged with association for the purpose of prostitution. So the Thai women paid a fine for that and they were released but the remaining women were all from Burma and they were also processed according to the alien working act and immigration law. So they were charged with working in the wrong occupation. For association with prostitution, and working in the wrong occupation. They were then sent to immigration detention, to be held as witnesses.

They were held there for 34 days and during that 34 days they worked alongside the National Human Rights Commission, which found that they were being held without any lawful authority. So they were moved into the witness protection programme. The other women were released on bail. Another 10 who had no documents at all were sent to the women’s prison on remand. I think about 85 women are still in detention of some type, more than 50 days after the raid, plus the 15 who were charged with being victims are still in detention. Their family went to try and visit them from Burma.

What does this raid say, and is it trying to tackle a bigger problem?

Thai society is not invested any more in the moral crime of selling sex. I think Thai society is actually ready to let that go. They are much more interested in the crimes of corruption, exploitation against people and human rights. They are much more interested in this. But the corruption issue — we don’t know where it went. There have been more human rights abuses carried out in the raid than were being carried out in the work. If they were worried about the initial crimes [against] the children, why would you leave the minors in the place for three months?

How does it look for the future of these women?

It will end in deportation. That’s always the final step — deportation. What we are trying to do now is talk to the National Human Rights Commission about requesting that the women are not handed over to the Burmese immigration and that they can be released at the border to their families.

Many of the sex workers in northern Thailand come from other countries. Has it been their choice?

I think choice is a very funny word in life. When you go to a fancy restaurant sometimes they’ll give you a menu the size of a photo album, and then you make your choice, no? Then sometimes you go to a noodle shop and you get a one-page menu, and in terms of career-life opportunities, most women in the world have a one-page menu. So when we are talking choice, we are not talking, would you prefer to be an astronaut. So women don’t talk about using the word “choice”, they use the word “decide”.

Most of the migrant workers coming across are working in factories, agriculture, construction, all these other jobs. Very few take the leap over the social stigma to do sex work. What the sex workers are doing are lifting themselves and their families for generations out of poverty.

There are a lot of problems in the sex industry. There needs to be an end to a lot of the exploitative labour practices, but it doesn’t need to be totally abolished.