With the shutdown of the red-light districts of Thailand by COVID-19, hundreds of thousands of sex workers have been left without income and helpless. Donations have replaced official aid, in a country that despite its lucrative sex tourism industry, maintains prostitution as an illegal activity.
On a narrow street in Bangkok’s old town, where middle-aged prostitutes work, a large group of women and transsexuals await the arrival of the aid delivery by a local NGO.
One of them, who asks not to reveal her identity, tells Efe that a few days ago she has resumed work despite fears of contracting the new coronavirus.
“I always carry alcohol spray and gels (disinfectants),” he says, hiding his face.
The woman, who ensures that she needs the money to pay for the education of her 4 children and from whom she hides her work, asks that her profession be legalized in order to gain access to state aid.
At least three days a week, members of the local 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 by Twitter users and we received great support,” Surang Janyam, director and founder of the organization, told Efe.
Despite the fact that 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 places where hundreds of young people work, most of them from impoverished regions in the interior of the country.
In mid-March, the Bangkok city council announced the closure of entertainment venues, including brothels sneaky between bars with dancers or massage centers, and any attempt to reopen date is still unknown.
With the loss of their only source of income, many of the tens of thousands of prostitutes practicing in Bangkok and the coastal city of Pattaya, have been forced to spend the night in parks or on the beach, unable to cope with 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 accumulates nearly 1 million bat ($ 31,200 or 28,800 euros) and whose funds are used to help sex workers.
They also demand the legalization of the sector and that the workers are protected by law and demand that the COVID-19 pandemic serve as a lesson for the authorities when it comes to recognizing the profession and collecting taxes through legalization of 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,” says Surang, who insures more than 50% of sex workers. they help their relatives financially.
Although there are no official data from the Thai authorities, a study by the World Health Organization places between 150,000 and 200,000 people who practice prostitution in Thailand, while Oenegés raise the number to 300,000 and a university study considers that there are up to 2 , 8 million citizens involved in the sector.
A huge industry that, according to the intelligence agency Havocscope specialized in the black market, moved in 2015 more than 6,400 million dollars (about 5,900 million euros) or about 1.5% of the country’s GDP.
Anna, a transsexual who has been practicing the profession for 11 years and lives in Pattaya, points out to Efe that she can enter between 10,000 and 20,000 bats a week (between 310 and 620 dollars or 285 or 570 euros) in high tourism season -between October and April-.
About 25 percent of their earnings are sent to their parents in the eastern Loei province, where they work as farmers.
However, given the current situation, Anna assures that she has been weeks without “any income, only expenses” and that she has been denied access to the monthly extraordinary fund of 5,000 bat (154 dollars or 142 euros) that the government distributes to the most people in need.
Sorry, the prostitute acknowledges that the road to recovery in the sex industry will be a long one.
“It may be that next year things will return to normal. First, tourism and the confidence of travelers will have to be recovered, that will also be complicated and will take time,” says Anna, stressing the difficulty of finding another job outside the country. sector due to the economic downturn due to the pandemic and the stigmas of being a sex worker and transsexual.
“This will be the last industry to reopen (when the pandemic ends). And even when they resume business, I don’t think they have many clients (…) It is time for the Thai government to speak openly and seriously about this issue.” , sentences the director of SWING.