Thailand’s Tourism Ministry is cracking down on the country’s infamous sex industry, in an attempt to promote “quality tourism” instead. The ministry wants to shut down brothels with the aim of getting rid of the ubiquitous sex trade altogether. However, local support groups warn that the government must find alternative jobs for sex workers who will be stripped of their livelihoods if such plans come to fruition.
“We want Thailand to be about quality tourism. We want the sex industry gone.”
These are the words of Minister of Tourism Kobkarn Wattanavrangbul, who has made the government’s position clear. She has downplayed the role of the sex industry in drawing tourists to Thailand and the money it brings in each year. The ministry hopes to eradicate prostitution and rebrand Thailand as a luxurious cultural destination in order to attract wealthier visitors.
However, according to local rights groups NightLight and Service Workers in Group (SWING), such changes would further jeopardize the livelihoods of vulnerable women involved in the sex trade.
According to a 2014 UNAID report, Thailand is home to approximately 123,530 sex workers, which is drastically more than the 37,000 in neighbouring Cambodia. Most are drawn to Bangkok and other tourist meccas, as they are lured by the promise of work and better pay. Many of Thailand’s sex workers come from the impoverished northeastern regions. Many are children and are the victims of human trafficking, who fall into the industry as it is the best option, financially, for supporting their families back home.
Reuters interviewed a former sex worker from the northeastern province of Maha Sarakham, who claimed she could earn up to 5,000 baht ($143.14) in one night, twenty times the minimum wage of 300 baht ($8.59).
“No one wants to work in this business, but it’s fast and easy money,” she said.
The sex industry is a highly controversial topic amongst largely Buddhists and conservatives in Thailand. Officially, prostitution is illegal, however, the laws are routinely ignored. Police are regularly bribed to keep quiet about nefarious business practices, and officials are often embroiled in the trade. Moreover, most observers acknowledge that is unrealistic to expect an immediate end to the sex industry as it has been so deeply entrenched into the tourist trade.
Welfare groups believe that shutting down the sex industry will do further damage to Thailands’ economy, which has already suffered major blows due to the fallout of political unrest and the establishment of military rule in 2014. However, in recent weeks many brothels and bars have been hit with police raids, supposedly in an attempt to prosecute venues for employing underage and illegal migrant workers. The raids have been reported as unrelated to the tourism ministry’s announcement, however, they have served as an early warning sign that the government is getting serious about closing down the illegal trade. The raids have caused concern amongst clientele who frequent such bars, driving many away for fear of prosecution, according to SWING director, Surang Janyam.
Janyam says that fellow rights groups will welcome the sex industry’s closure if the government makes concrete plans to ensure that sex workers are supported through the process.
“If they want to close the sex industry, they must first have jobs ready to support sex workers.”
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