Thailand’s sexy problem

Bangkok's night workers need to be protected

Jordi Rudd Hughes

Society and culture | Southeast Asia

18 April 2017

Bangkok is a hedonist’s paradise. Cheap food, luxury hotels and a rampant sex trade are fuelled by local lust and foreign adventurism. But this all comes at a cost.

Roaring tunes, bright lights and scantly clad women assaulted my senses as I walked down ‘Soi Cowboy’ last July. The world of go-go bars, massage parlours and street girls is disparate to quaint Canberra. On the surface it appeared harmless; jovial workers solicited and chatted with the diverse group of revellers enjoying late night debauchery.

But the industry has significant problems. Its status as a prosperous yet illegal grey industry means regulation is difficult. As a result, 200,000-300,000 sex workers are at risk of exploitation and Sexually Transmissible Infections.

Thailand’s foreign minister has recently vowed to eradicate the industry, and instead aims to capture the tourist market, worth 10% of the economy, with its beaches and temples.

This isn’t the best option.

The sex industry is incredibly valuable to both the Thai economy and the livelihoods of the Thai people. Regulation, therefore, is a superior option. A crackdown on the industry would result in a decline of tourists, burdening an already struggling economy.

Health related issues are also a huge stain on the industry. HIV prevalence in female sex workers is estimated to be between 3-20 per cent, with young people, migrants and those in urban areas at greater risk of transmission. STIs like syphilis are herpes are also common. Risks are not only isolated to workers; customers are at risk as well.

Recent police raids have highlighted the presence of underage prostitutes in various Bangkok brothels. These girls are predominantly victims of human trafficking from neighbouring countries or rural areas. They are forced or coerced into lives of prostitution to escape poverty. They are not subject to labour protections and often live in extremely adverse conditions imprisoned by debt-bondage (working to pay off travel/board debts).

Thailand’s sex industry is worth between 2 – 14 per cent of its GDP and hundreds of thousands of livelihoods depend on it. The government receives substantial revenue from venue licensing fees and rampant corruption. World Outreach International estimates 4.2 million men have come to Thailand purely for sex services every year.

Due to the inherent risk and the stigma surrounding the profession, workers earn an average of US$800 a month, over double the national average. Rural families of sex workers receive US$300 million a year in remittances as a result, exceeding the budgets of some aid programs.

Prostitution’s illegality means the government cannot effectively regulate the industry. STI prevention programs are self-regulated by venues, and HIV testing is only required every three months. Workers can easily skip testing and return to work, while freelance sex workers are not subject to any testing. Legalisation and regulation of the industry would improve these practices.

It is true that sex tourism fuels demand for prostitution services and thus promotes trafficking. The UN has cited corruption as a ‘large barrier’ in its fight against human trafficking.  Regulating the industry will reduce corruption and trafficking, but will not eradicate this problem completely. It is a moral dilemma that the government must contemplate. The immense economic benefit that the industry brings to its workers, their families and the government must be considered as well.

The government can better protect workers from exploitation by providing them with legal status. The UN has reported that workplace protections are not followed in the sex industry, and as a result ‘workplace conditions, OH&S and workers’ rights (are) being ignored.’ Legalisation of the industry will allow for more effective regulation. Employers will have to improve the conditions and safety of workers. Additionally, workers will be given the opportunity to unionise, giving them collective bargaining powers against employers.

There is an immense economic benefit to legalising the sex industry. In 2003, when Thailand considered legalising prostitution, the National Economic and Social Development think tank estimated the industry to be worth US$1.2 billion a year to the government. Thailand is currently experiencing limited economic prosperity and growing the tax base through regulation would help the nation tackle problems like human trafficking, corruption and its poor health record.

I want Bangkok to continue being a crazy utopia of indulgence; it’s a refreshing break from the real world. However, when I next enjoy the atmosphere of the city’s thriving precincts, it would be very satisfying to see a flourishing, regulated industry with a working population that is better protected.

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