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Thailand’s exploited, vulnerable sex workers could soon be protected by law

Written by Thailand News

Many thousands of Thais have worked in the sex industry for decades without legal protection. So it’s not surprising that most of them are looking forward eagerly to the passage of the Sex Workers Protection Bill.

“With no legal shield at all, we are exploited both directly and indirectly,” said a 37-year-old sex worker.

In the 13 years she has been selling sexual services, she has witnessed operators use harsh tactics to control sex workers and ensure they keep bringing in the money. She pointed out that owners of venues where sex is traded must themselves pay officials under the table, as prostitution remains illegal in Thailand.

Owners of so-called girly bars also fine the sex workers heavily if they fail to show up at work for a day or two. Sometimes, operators deduct money from the commission the women make on drinks bought for them by customers, hoping they will be too drunk to notice.

And since prostitution is illegal, venues providing sexual services are not registered and therefore not subject to regulations on hygiene and safety. As a result, sex workers are vulnerable to disease and on-the-job injuries.

“If the bill is passed, prostitution will become legal and the stigma against us will also fade,” said the sex worker, who is also a mother.

What is the Sex Worker Protection Bill?

The bill is being pushed by the Department of Women’s Affairs and Family Development in a bid to undo the 1996 Prostitution Suppression Act, and provide protection for sex workers, as well as improve their quality of life.

The department has commissioned Thammasat University to prepare the content of the draft bill.

“We believe the final draft will be ready next month,” department director-general Jintana Chanbamrung said.

She explained the drafting process includes brainstorming between all involved parties so they can find common ground. Also taken into account are similar laws in other countries where sex work is legal. So far, prostitution has been legalized under specific laws in at least 15 countries, including the Netherlands and Germany.

“We hope to present a bill that is acceptable to the majority,” Jintana said.

Chatchalawan Muangjan, Empower Foundation’s legal advisor, said once the bill is turned into law, sex workers will be entitled to the same state welfare that white-collar workers currently enjoy.

Key clauses and contracts

The bill stipulates that all sex workers and their clients must be at least 18 years of age. Sex workers will be protected from discriminatory practices and receive proper payment from customers or venue operators. All benefits and conditions will have to be set in writing.

Most importantly, the bill gives sex workers the right to refuse to provide services at any time. Similarly, customers too can refuse to buy the service.

In case of disputes between customers and service providers, officials will act as mediators.

The bill defines sex venue operators as intermediaries who coordinate or procure sexual services for customers, with or without benefiting from a share of the earnings.

The legislation also requires operators to seek a license, in a bid to ensure proper protection for sex workers.

The bill also prescribes the establishment of agencies that provide protection and ensure sex workers have access to legal recourse. One such agency would be a national-level committee, chaired by the social development and human security minister and featuring the head of the Department of Women’s Affairs and Family Development, the Provincial Administration Department, the Disease Control Department and the Employment Department. Also sitting on the committee would be the Social Security Office’s secretary-general, the National Police chief, up to three representatives of sex workers and up to three specialists appointed by the committee.

Apart from the national-level committee, under the bill every province would also have a panel that provides protection to sex workers under its jurisdiction. As well as providing protection, these committees will also offer relevant information and support for sex workers’ occupational development.

Penalties and punishment

The Sex Workers Protection Bill seeks to clamp down on child abuse and the trafficking of minors. The bill penalizes anyone who pays for sex with a minor aged 15 to 17 with a jail term of between one and three years, plus a fine of 20,000 to 60,000 baht. This penalty will be applicable even if the minor is a consenting partner.

Those who pay for sex with a minor below the age of 15 would face two to six years in prison and a fine of between 40,000 and 120,000 baht.

Meanwhile, anyone who procures a minor aged 15 to 17 for sexual services, even if it is with the youngster’s consent, faces a prison sentence of five to 15 years as well as a fine of between 200,000 and 400,000 baht.

If a parent or guardian is aware of or an accomplice in such a transaction with their child, they face up to 20 years in jail and a maximum fine of 400,000 baht.

People who are worried that youngsters may be lured into the flesh trade suggest that the bill revise the minimum legal age of sex workers from 18 to 20 or even 25.

Will this law make sex work more attractive?

Chatchalawan does not believe the passage of the Sex Worker Protection Bill would encourage more people to jump into the flesh trade, pointing out that it aims to protect sex workers, not promote their occupation.

“We will attend all brainstorming sessions and forums related to the bill to ensure that the views are balanced,” she said.

Legal recognition for sex work may also help reduce the social condemnation attached to the trade.

One female sex worker said she does not understand why people in the sex trade face so much stigma. She pointed out that sex work does no harm to others, and those in the trade are merely offering what little they have to make ends meet.

“This job allows me to support my family financially,” she said.

Tunyawaj Kamolwongwat, a Move Forward Party member and spokesperson for the House committee on youth, women, the elderly, ethnic people and LGBTQ, said his party would push through the Sex Workers Protection Bill if it gained power after the upcoming election.

“But even if we end up in the opposition camp, we will continue pushing hard for the passage of this bill,” he said.

By Thai PBS World

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