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Covid Leaves Thai Sex Workers High and Dry

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Thailand’s complete lockdown has crippled its sex trade and left tens of thousands of woman dependent on it without any income.

Sex draws millions of foreign tourists from across the globe to Thailand , providing the country with  $ 6.4 billion in annual revenue .

The ladies who massage and sleep around for a price account for roughly 10 percent of Thailand’s GDP, according to the Empower Foundation, an organisation advocating for the rights of sex workers across Thailand.

The government which allows but never openly admits earning revenues from the sex trade does not provide official statistics , suffering from an ‘eat-but-not-admit’ syndrome.

Sex workers are some of the highest paid professionals in the country with some earning upto 5,000 Thai Baht (US$150) a night – nearly 20 times the minimum wage in Thailand of 300 Baht  (US$9) a day. 

The primary tourist ‘prostitution zones’ of Thailand are in the red-light districts of Bangkok and Pattaya, as well as Patong Beach on Phuket Island. 

The city of Pattaya alone in Chonburi Province has around 27,000 prostitutes in a population of 1,20,000 , that helps draw one million tourists annually.  

Despite the popularity of the sex industry in Thailand, prostitution has been illegal in the kingdom since the 1960s. 

“Any person, being over 16 years of age, subsists on the earning of a prostitute, even if it is some part of her income, shall be punished with imprisonment of seven to 20 years and fined of 14 thousand to 40 thousand Baht, or imprisonment for life,” according to Thailand’s Penal Code Amendment Act.

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Though authorities in Thailand have implemented laws against sex work and conducted numerous crackdowns at clubs and karaoke bars – the industry has continued to thrive.

That is, until the deadly COVID-19 virus hit the country.

State Of Emergency

As of 13 April, Thailand has recorded more than 2,500 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 40 fatalities. That has risen to 2952 infections and 52 fatalities at the time of writing this report. 

On 26 March, a state of emergency came into force in Thailand with the hope that it would help break the chain of infection.

 It was reported that entry into the kingdom had been barred except for diplomats and returning Thais who have health certificates. 

The Royal Gazette also announced that authorities would “close all checkpoints and gates” for its land borders, while entry by air and ship would also be halted. Other than that, mass gatherings are also prohibited during the state of emergency, which is to end on 30 April.

The strict measure came as huge blow for Thailand’s tourism industry, one of the country’s main economic sectors. 

Thailand anticipates the loss of five million tourists this year, taking with them “250 billion baht (over US$8 billion) in revenue”, according to Don Nakornthab, Director of Economic Policy at the Bank of Thailand.

Moreover, according to media reports, Thailand has also implemented a night curfew in a bid to control the spread of the coronavirus. The curfew began on 3 April, from 10pm to 4am daily and forbids anyone in the country from leaving their homes. Authorities also warned that those who violate the order will face a two-year jail term.

That has ruined Thailand’s raunchy night life and threatens to throw thousands of sex workers and massage girls ( who often end up providing sex)  into jeopardy — without a job and an income.

Red-light districts from Bangkok to Pattaya have already gone quiet . Night clubs and massage parlours have “not open” signs on their doors  and tourists are blocked from entering the country.

Empower Foundation estimates 300,000 sex workers have been thrown out of a job, pressing some onto the streets to desperately seek local clients who pay less  but with huge risks of infection .

” I know the virus can kill me but I may probably not be infected. But lack of work will leave hungry and I will surely die of starvation,” says Rosie, a 26 year old Thai girl from the southern town of Hat Yai .

 On Monday, she braved police patrols to venture out on a Sukhumvit street in Bangkok’s busy commercial district. She got no client after standing in front of a glitzy hotel for hours.

Pointing to the massage parlour she usually works in, she said : “No lights there, no light in my life. We work, we earn or less no food .”

 Thailand has been under a 10 pm to 4 am curfew since the lockdown started . Bars and eat-in restaurants closed several days earlier.

Many of Bangkok’s sex workers had jobs in the relative safety of bars, working for tips and willing to go home with customers.

When their workplaces suddenly closed most returned home to wait out the crisis.

Some like Rosie and her friend Jane (identity concealed) went to work the streets.

The government says it is ready to enforce a 24-hour curfew if necessary to control a virus .

Rosie and Jane are suffering the most on account of the movement restrictions — she has not had a customer for 10 days and the bills are mounting.

Alice, a transgender sex worker, has also been forced to move from a go-go bar to the roadside.

“I used to make decent money sometimes $300-600 a week,” she says.

“We do this because we’re poor, not because we love it. Given a choice, we leave this dirty work and settle down in our lives ,” said Alice . “Trouble is if we can’t pay our hotel they will kick us out.”

The occasional tourist loiters near clusters of sex workers, before a deal is done and both worker and client rush back to a nearby hotel, one of the few still open on Bangkok’s main tourist zone.

The already high risks of sex work have rocketed as the virus spreads.

Sex workers have flocked back to homes across the country in anticipation of several weeks of virtual lockdown before Thailand’s night economy comes back to life.

There are fears the malaise could last for months, yanking billions of tourist dollars from the economy and leaving those working in the informal sector destitute.

They include sex workers — an illegal but widely accepted part of Thailand’s nightlife.

A Thai government emergency scheme to give 5,000 baht ($150) to millions of newly jobless over the next three months may exclude sex workers because they cannot prove formal employment.

The Empower Foundation, an advocacy group for the kingdom’s sex workers, says entertainment venues make around $6.4 billion a year, many of them selling sex in some form.

Women are suffering the most from the virus measures, it says. Many are mothers and their family’s main income earner, forced into sex work by lack of opportunities or low graduate salaries.

The group has written an open letter to the government urging it to “find a way to provide assistance to all workers who have lost their earnings”.

At 10 pm as curfew looms, Rosie and Jane prepare for a final scouting the streets for customers.

“I think the government has been really slow. They don’t care about people like us who work in the sex industry,” Jane said. ” Believe me , we earn for this country more than many .” 

“We’re more afraid of having nothing to eat than the virus.”

These hapless women forced into prostitution to beat poverty belong to the world’s toiling millions who may escape the virus but not the hunger that inevitably will catch up with them.

(Thai Lam, a Vietnamese  who worked in Bangkok’s massage parlours to pay for her education, now has a Ph.d on a revealing thesis on “Regional Conflicts and Thailand’s sex trade”, that may soon be published as a book) 

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1 Comment
  1. S K Dutta says

    Thai lam’s story is a vindication of the fact that if your resolve is firm,you can aspire to achieve any goal.
    I m sure her book will be a rewarding success story for many others of her ilk.And luckily,she has a great guide n mentor in the irrepressible Subir Bhowmik.
    Good luck to Thai Lam, the gutsy one.

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