Friday, February 21, 2003

Chayanit Poonyarat

Legalizing Thai sex work has social gain: activists

BANGKOK — There are mixed reactions to a recent proposal to legalize prostitution, but activists and sex workers in Thailand say that this would bring not only financial but social gain, by ensuring better protection of rights. "I see that every party can benefit from the change," said Natee Teerarojjanapongs, director of the Fraternity for AIDS Cessation in Thailand (FACT), a non-governmental organization that works with male sex workers.

Although some have argued that legalization would encourage more people to go into the sex trade, Natee says that having legal status would allow actually sex workers protection from the exploitation of their bosses and customers.

For the government, legalizing an industry that fuels a large part of the underground economy would bring more income, he said.

A 50-billion-baht industry

"Society has always tried to deny the fact that prostitution will continue to exist no matter what, and we're talking about an industry that's worth 40 to 50 billion baht a year (933.5-1,166 million US dollars)," said Chantawipa Apisuk, director of Empower Foundation, an advocacy organization for sex workers. "Most service girls I know would want to be working legally because they have been so exploited by underworld figures," she added.

The legalization of the sex trade was among the ideas proposed by think tank National Economic and Social Development (NESDB) last week in order to turn underground businesses into legal ones, and boost state revenues.

"The government has assigned us to gather information and provide it with a broad and clear picture of underground businesses by May," Chakramon Phasukvanich, secretary-general of the NESDB, said in explaining the background for the proposal.

According to an International Labor Organization (ILO) report in 1998, the sex industry accounts for between 2 to 14 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in countries like Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

One of the largest underground businesses in Thailand

In Thailand, prostitution was "the largest of the underground businesses, winning out over drug trafficking, arms trading, contraband in diesel oil, trafficking in human labor and gambling", the report added.

The proposal coincided with the government's aim to expand Thailand's tax base, amid growing public concern over state spending on health care and grassroots stimulus programs.

"The bigger the underground economy, the more corruption," said Chakramon. "This is despite the fact that the underground economy, according to the NESDB's definition, does not even cover drug trafficking and gambling."

Bringing prostitution into the legal will also reduce corruption, the NESDB argues.

In fact, "it is the sex trade operators who should enjoy this idea the most because then they do not need to pay big money for bribe or protection fee. It is easier to do business this way," said Chantawipa.

Govít eyes revenues from sex trade

The government is also looking to bring in more revenues from the sex trade in another way — by proposing that they pay taxes as well.

A tax official at the Finance Ministry was quoted in a local newspaper as saying that sex workers often do not pay full taxes. Those who work in legal massage parlors are subject to personal income tax but those working in illegal ones or on the streets do not.

Recently, the Cabinet imposed a 10-percent excise tax on revenues from massage parlors.

But it is the proposed legalization of prostitution that has created the most impact. "It's my dream," Pen, a 34-year-old sex worker in the Patpong red-light district in the Thai capital said, adding that they are often humiliated and exploited.

Pen, who has worked 10 years in the trade, added, "If prostitution is legal, sex workers will be able to sue if they're exploited."

Boost efforts to crack down on child trafficking

Legalization will also boost efforts to crack down on child trafficking for the sex trade. By making the sex trade operators transparent in the tax system, it is less likely that they will want to get into trouble by including child prostitutes in their places, says columnist Veena Thoopkrajae of the English-language newspaper 'The Nation'.

Certainly, she said, if they are made taxpayers, sex workers should enjoy all the rights that other taxpayers have, including health care services and other benefits that the government provides

Natee says that the legalization of sex work would also curb risks such as sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS, because the government as well as AIDS activists will have access to brothels.

"We AIDS activists have long faced problems of having no access to educate or control the spread of HIV among sex workers, because such vulnerable groups and places are out of our reach," he said, pointing out that sex workers are always too afraid to show up for tests".

Some have warned that licensing prostitution might force more poor people into the sex trade, but Natee thinks otherwise.

"I think it will even push people away from this business with those who only want easy money have to think twice. Nobody wants to be labeled prostitutes," he said.

"For society, it needs to realize that sex workers do not have an easy life. In most cases, it is the last choice one can make, when one is willing to give up and risk many things to survive," Natee said. "Instead of detesting them, society should understand them."

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Created: April 13, 2003
Last modified: April 13, 2003
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