The recent shunting of Pattaya's highest-ranking police officers is forcing Thailand to confront its look-the-other-way attitude to prostitution. We chat to Thanta Laowilawanyakul, the coordinator of Empower Foundation, a charity fighting since 1985 for the legalization of prostitution, about why Thailand needs to drop the stigma around sex work.
Why should sex work be legal?
Sex work should be legal in the same way as sewing clothes, cutting hair or cooking noodles is. There are laws against rape, sexual exploitation, human trafficking, child abuse, and labor protection laws that can be used to protect children, adults and society. There is no need for a special law like the old Prostitution Act. Without it, we will be able to use the justice system like others do now. Corrupt authorities will not be able to extort as much money as they do now. Our workplaces and employers will have to comply with Labor Law and Social Security. We will be able to apply for other jobs more easily when we want to leave sex work. We will be able to report crimes like violence, corruption, child abuse, trafficking etcetera without fearing arrest. We will have the same protections and benefits as other mothers and workers.
What harm do workers face when operating illegally?
The media often reports large bribes being paid when there are raids—sex workers and employers confirm to Empower that this is true. A new law with new regulations would only create fresh opportunities for corruption. Our employers cut our earnings to pay the bribes, meaning we must work more than is sometimes healthy for us. We are all considered criminals, so workers under 18 years old or women in situations of force cannot be identified clearly and assisted. We all look the same and are treated the same. Sometimes we are treated as criminals, other times as victims.
Would legalizing sex work help reduce human trafficking and child victims?
Removing the Prostitution Act will ensure the industry is no longer a criminal enterprise run by mafia figures. Employers would change from being outlaws to doing business within the law. This will reduce crimes in our industry, including trafficking and child abuse. Countries such as Germany, where they made a new regulation including registration, found that human trafficking increased. New Zealand removed the Prostitution Act in 2003 and the government found that there was no increase in the number of sex workers or children being abused. In the last month, Mexico removed their prostitution law in order to reduce trafficking and child sexual abuse.
"Thailand does not lack good laws, but we lack good enforcement."
What sorts of regulations would you implement if sex work is legalized, and how would you ensure they are followed?
We would like to see the existing laws enforced to protect sex workers and society, including: the Labor Protection Act; Social Security Act; Child Protection Act; Entertainment Place Act; Human Trafficking Act; Alcohol Act; and the Penal Code. These laws prevent under 18s from being involved in sex work; protect the labor rights of workers; control the operations of businesses; punish crimes of rape, violence and corruption; and protect against and prevent human trafficking and forced sex work. Thailand does not lack good laws, but we lack good enforcement.
Since legalization doesn’t necessarily mean acceptance, how will you tackle the negative stigma attached to sex work?
We would at least lose the stigma of being criminals. Actually, the stigma has already decreased in Thai society—other workers, women and mothers are much more willing to accept our decisions and rights to be safe and treated fairly. Before acceptance comes respect. Thai society is very concerned with finding a way that we can all respect our differences be they gender, occupation or politics. As sex workers, we are a part of this journey too.
Do you think the legalisation of sex work will affect Thailand’s tourism industry?
It is estimated that sex work contributes a large part of the money earned from tourism. Of the 36 million tourists that come each year many visit waterfalls, beaches and famous sites. Some also visit our workplaces. Most tourists do not know Thai law and assume that sex work is legal already. When sex work is no longer illegal we will be able to build a safer, fairer industry and we think most tourists will be impressed that Thailand is willing to respect and protect the rights of women who do sex work. It will improve the reputation of Thailand as a country that respects human rights.
What’s stopping the legalization of sex work right now? What is the first step for policy-makers in taking up this challenge?
At the moment the Prostitution Act has just been reviewed and there is general agreement that it needs to be removed. Even though there has been some suggestion of a new law and regulations, we believe that when policy makers engage with civil society properly, including Empower, they will understand that a new set of regulations would only bring new problems. The next step is perhaps to run a pilot project in one or two areas. We suggest Pattaya and Chiang Mai, where there is a wide range of entertainment businesses and a strong sex worker organizing presence. They should form a working group of government representatives, employers and sex worker organizations and an international labor organization to create labor standards for the industry, with an inspection and complaints mechanism. The Prostitution Act should be suspended in all registered workplaces.
Have there been any changes, good or bad, in the past decade?
Corruption has continued, as has the "illegal or legal" debate. Meanwhile women are going to work, providing for their families and contributing a great part of the GDP without any protection, respect or recognition. Many anti-trafficking NGOs have increased their budgets and some continue to act like vigilantes but they say trafficking is getting worse! We see the size of the industry has not reduced or got bigger, it just changes shape. In the last 10 years we have seen that women are working more independently and have greater access to information and each other. There is more understanding in the general public that sex work is work.
If legalization doesn’t happen now, can you still help these sex workers in any way?
Sex workers will continue to help each other and society as part of Empower. Breaking one small law does not mean we have no rights under other laws like the Labor Law.