Thailand will have to brace itself for an increase in the number of sex workers when the Asean Economic Community (AEC) is launched in three years' time.
Thailand needs to reform its laws and policies to protect sex workers' rights and prevent the exploitation of women through punitive law enforcement, Chantawipa Apisuk, director of the Empower Foundation, said yesterday at the "Sex Work and the Law in the Asia-Pacific" seminar held at the Dusit Thani Hotel in Bangkok.
"Thailand will be a target for sex tourism in the region after the opening of the AEC [in 2015]," Ms Chantawipa said.
She said because of easier access and the strong Thai baht versus the currencies of other Asean countries, it is likely that more sex workers from neighbouring countries will come to earn a living in Thailand.
According to a report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) published recently, sex workers in Thailand are harassed, intimidated and exploited as they are considered to be operating illegally.
The UNDP's report shows generally around 30,000 sex workers a year are charged under the 1996 Suppression of Prostitution Act.
Ninety-one Myanmar women were arrested in 2011 for working at entertainment venues without work permits.
It was estimated in 2006 that undocumented migrant sex workers typically pay police bribes totalling 6,000 to 14,000 baht a year.
Ms Chantawipa urged the application of labour laws with sex workers instead of using the outdated 1996 act.
She said amending labour laws would help solve the problems of exploitation of women and corruption. "Crime and prostitution are separate," Ms Chantawipa said.
She added that the entertainment business sector must be reformed to allow sex workers to work like other people in society.
Sex workers should be able to access social security and deserve protection under labour laws, she said.
"This will change mafia figures into employers, and sex workers will be turned from victims to employees," said Ms Chantawipa.
"It will also curb corruption in the police as well as reduce punitive law enforcement because police won't be able to ask for bribes or free sex from sex workers," she said.
Ms Chantawipa also urged the Tourism Authority of Thailand to provide funds to improve the quality of life of entertainment industry workers, including sex workers, as the industry generates billions of baht.
She estimated there are about 200,000 sex workers in Thailand, with customers at 10 times that number.
In addition, Mandeep Dhaliwal, who directs the UNDP's work on HIV/Aids, health and development practice, said at the meeting that decriminalising sex workers would allow them to gain access to HIV/Aids prevention services.
She cited a study published in The Lancet this year that female sex workers are 14 times more likely to acquire HIV/Aids among women of reproductive age.
She added that less than 20% of sex workers worldwide are able to access HIV/Aids prevention treatment and care.
"Criminalisation of sex workers elevates HIV/Aids risk because it drives sex workers underground and away from HIV/Aids prevention services," said Ms Dhaliwal.
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