In red light districts across Thailand, workers gather on the street looking for customers every evening.
The government estimates there are 77,000 sex workers in the country, while NGOs say the figure is closer to 300,000 – and both agree that sex trafficking is a significant problem.
Even though the industry is widespread, sex work is illegal in Thailand.
But as Kannikar Petchkaew reports, one establishment – owned and run by sex workers – is challenging the norm.
It’s Friday night here in this tiny bar in the red light district of Chiang Mai, in Thailand’s north.
The night is young, but the place is already crowded – only one seat at the bar is free.
A group of women are hanging out at the bar too, eating, gossiping and jokingly teasing each other.
They could be students, colleagues or factory workers, but they are sex workers – and this is their bar.
In 2006, a group of about 30 sex workers pooled their money together to set up this bar called ‘Can Do’.
Together they raised about US$30,000 and opened this place, the idea being to create an establishment where sex workers are free from exploitation and abuse.
It is the only bar in Thailand of its kind…
“Sawatdee ka, would you care for a drink or anything sir?”
That’s Fah. She’s 22 and the youngest sex worker here.
She is leaning over the bar with a broad smile and long black hair offering a customer a drink. In jeans and a t-shirt she looks like a college student, but she has been a sex worker here at Can Do for 3 years.
Starting right after high school, Fah say she enjoys her job.
“We work only at night then we can go freely anywhere in the daytime; we can travel, and we can also learn languages by our foreigner clients,” she says.
In her early thirties, sex worker Mai Janta is the manager of Can Do.
She says the bar is unique because its workers are well paid and treated with respect.
“We pay 300 baht per day, and we have certain working hours,” she says, “We close at midnight. We can take drink fees, and when the bar earns more than 2,500 baht each night, we get an additional 10% income. Any tips from customers go directly to each worker.”
Unlike other bars in the red light district, here there are no high-heeled boots, or frilly skirts and no naked dancing.
Women at ‘Can Do’ can do and wear whatever they want.
Around 50 women are registered to work at the bar but they can also work elsewhere if they choose. Usually they make between 30 and 50 dollars a night – much higher than many other places.
Fah and Peung are talking about a karaoke parlor they worked in several years ago, before they found Can Do.
They say they were paid only $3-4 a night, and sometimes had to work until 6 o’clock in the morning.
Peung started sex work after she got divorced six years ago and is pretty frank about her profession.
People that come to help sex workers always come with their own agenda she says, usually starting from the premise that sex work is bad. And that sex workers are victims of poverty or trafficking.
But that isn’t always true, she says.
“Journalists love a story about policemen cracking down to help those women,” she says, “That’s a great story and many people take great credit for it. But have you ever asked those women if they want to be helped?
Fah, Peung and others have all worked in bars and brothels where their salaries were docked if they gained weight, or didn’t smile enough, or if the patrons didn’t buy them enough drinks.
The best way to help sex workers, they say, is to decriminalize the trade so women are not subject to the whims of rapacious employers.
“We just want to be under and protected by the labor law, recognized as regular workers,” she says, “What we need is only social security, salary, some days off and equal rights.”
And despite the social criticism they face for working in a taboo industry, Fah says you have to shrug when the neighbors gossip.
“I let them talk, but don’t take it into account because doing so would just be to let myself down,” she says, “No one can let you down if you don’t allow them to.”
For women Fah and Peung, their work is just like any other service industry, and they should have fair practices and a safe working environment.