Will the Thai election help sex workers?

Sex workers in Thailand.

Many are hoping to see a change in their country after Thailand‘s upcoming General Election on May 14, and sex workers are no exception.

Sex workers are crossing their fingers for the elections to bring about a change in the country’s antiquated sex industry legislation. With an estimated 300,000 people involved in the sex industry, campaigners are working to pass legislation that would decriminalise sex work. This would give sex workers full rights in the formal economy.

The Empower Foundation, a local nonprofit that campaigns for the rights of sex workers, has been lobbying political parties to support the legislation, Nikkei Asia reported. The new law would replace the existing Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act, which was enacted in 1996 and criminalised sex work.

Many sex workers are optimistic about the possibility of change, with all political parties lobbied by Empower reportedly agreeing to abolish the law. This is seen as a major shift in sentiment in Thailand’s conservative bureaucracy.

The new law, which is currently being drafted, has gone much further than previous efforts that were strongly opposed by groups rallying under the banners of family values and religion. Analysts say that the new law recognises the need for sex work services and for places that provide them to be registered.

Despite the industry’s high visibility in Thailand, it remains largely informal and criminal. Accurate estimates of the sex industry’s size and value are elusive, with some researchers estimating that there are between 250,000 and 300,000 sex workers in the country, placing it about 8th in global rankings. A 2015 study by Havocscope estimated that the Thai sex industry was worth US$6.4 billion annually, equating to about 3% of the gross domestic product.

However, some doubt the new law will be passed due to the massive number of bribes paid to enable the sex industry to flourish. Despite this, sex workers are hopeful that the law will be passed, allowing them to be recognised as normal workers and work legally.

Officials at the Ministry for Social Development and Human Security are leading the legislative reform initiative, and hope to present the draft bill to the new parliament.

Many thousands of Thais – mostly women – work their whole lives in the sex industry without legal protection. With nothing to shield them, they are exploited both directly and indirectly.

Operators use harsh methods to control their workers and ensure the money keeps rolling in. Owners of venues must pay huge “fees” to officials under the table, and sex work, almost unbelievably, remains illegal in Thailand.

Will the Thai election help sex workers?

Politics NewsThailand News

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Tara Abhasakun

A Thai-American dual citizen, Tara has reported news and spoken on a number of human rights and cultural news issues in Thailand. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in history from The College of Wooster. She interned at Southeast Asia Globe, and has written for a number of outlets. Tara reports on a range of Thailand news issues.