Social Issues

COVID-19 promotes claim to legalize prostitution in Thailand

By Noel Caballero

Bangkok, May 15 (efe-epa).- The closure of the red light districts as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has left thousands of sex workers in Thailand, infamous for its sex tourism, without shelter, food or money with which to support their relatives and has promoted the claim to legalize the sector.

On a narrow street in the historic chaste of Bangkok, where women in their 40s practice the profession, a large group of sex workers awaited the arrival of aid delivery by a local NGO.

One of the prostitutes, who asks not to reveal her identity, told EFE that a few days ago she has resumed work, despite fears of contracting the novel coronavirus.

“I always carry alcohol spray and gels (disinfectants),” she said, hiding her face.

The woman, who said she needs the money to pay for the education of her four children and from whom she hides her work, asked that her profession be legalized in order to gain access to state aid.

At least three days a week, members of the sex worker rights organization SWING deliver food, medicine and personal hygiene products to various locations in Bangkok and Pattaya.

“At first we were concerned about the reaction due to the social stigma of sex workers. But the message of help was widely shared on Twitter users and we received great support,” Surang Janyam, director and founder of the organization, told EFE.

Despite the fact Thai law establishes prostitution as an illegal practice, the huge brothels or brothel-filled streets are evident in overcrowded Bangkok and make up a large portion of the country’s underground economy.

Streets like the well-known Soi Cowboy or venues like Nana Plaza, both in the commercial heart of the metropolis, are home to dozens of clubs where hundreds of young people work, most of them from impoverished regions upcountry.

In mid-March, the Bangkok city council announced the closure of entertainment venues, including brothels hidden behind bars with dancers or massage centers, and reopening dates remain unknown.

Losing their sole source of income, many of the tens of thousands of prostitutes in Bangkok and the coastal city of Pattaya, according to SWING data, have been forced to spend the night in parks or on the beach, unable to cope with the cost of renting their rooms.

“It is one of the sectors most affected (economically by the pandemic), but also one of the most underprivileged,” says Surang.

In March, the association launched a successful campaign on social media to receive donations, which raised nearly 1 million baht ($ 31,200 or 28,800 euros) and whose funds are used to help sex workers.

They also demand the legalization of the sector, that workers be protected by law and demand that the COVID-19 pandemic serve as a lesson for authorities when it comes to recognizing the profession and collecting taxes by legislating this business.

“The money they earn is not only for them, but also for their families. If they cannot work, they are affected, but also those around them,” said Surang, who added that more than 50 percent of sex workers help their relatives financially.

Although there is no official data from Thai authorities, a study by the World Health Organization places between 150,000 and 200,000 women who practice prostitution in Thailand, while NGOs raise the number to 300,000 and a university study considers that there are up to 2.8 million people involved in the sector.

A huge industry that, according to intelligence agency Havocscope, specialized in the black market, moved in 2015 more than $6.4 billion, about 1.5 percent of the country’s GDP.

Anna, a transsexual who has been in the industry 11 years and lives in Pattaya, told EFE she could pocket between 10,000 baht and 20,000 baht a week (between $310 and $620) during the high season, from October to April.

About 25 percent of her earnings are sent to her parents in the eastern Loei province, where they work as farmers.

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