SEATTLE, Washington — For decades, Thailand has been well known for its booming sex tourism industry. Although sex work is technically illegal in the Kingdom, Thai sex workers operate in a legal grey area, working essentially as freelancers. Official estimates place the number of sex workers at 144,000. The actual number is believed to be much higher due to the illegal nature of the industry and the number of undocumented participants. The money brought in by the Thai sex tourism industry is more than $6 billion, which represents approximately 4-10% of the country’s GDP.
For many women from Thailand and neighboring countries, working in the sex tourism industry allows access to livable salaries that would not be otherwise available for those without high levels of education or social connections. In addition to women, there are also a sizeable number of male and transgender sex workers. Sex workers often support dependents living in different areas of Thailand or abroad. Despite the high pay relative to average Thai salaries, there are few social safety nets for Thai sex workers and the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this issue.
Lack of Tourism and Health Risks
Thai men and long-term expats also participate in the industry. However, sex workers rely heavily on foreign tourism to sustain their livelihoods. As Thailand’s international borders have remained mostly closed since March of 2020, tourism has collapsed from 39 million visitors in 2019 to mere thousands in 2020. Sex workers were among the first to see their industry shut down due to COVID-19. They lost their incomes almost overnight.
In addition to losing sources of income, Thai sex workers faced lockdown measures that made access to health care difficult. Such measures prevented many from returning to home provinces or neighboring countries of origin. Those that have been able to continue working during the pandemic are at greater risk of infection from sexually transmitted infections or COVID-19.
Due to a lack of governmental support, community organizations have been critical in protecting Thai sex workers from COVID-19 health risks. Additionally, they have offered food, shelter and medical care. The SWING organization has been distributing food to sex workers in Bangkok and Pattaya, along with continuing to operate its HIV testing capabilities and providing pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). Those that are already living with HIV in the two cities have been contacted by SWING. The organization reached out to ensure access to health care, home delivery of medications and counseling over the phone.
The Raks Thai Foundation has been providing personal protective equipment (PPE) to sex workers throughout the pandemic. These include hand sanitizer, masks, soap and condoms. On the advocacy side, the Empower organization has been pushing to decriminalize sex work in Thailand, which would lead to sex workers being able to register legally and access social security benefits and health care. Empower also provides educational opportunities for those that want to transition out of the industry.
Community-Based Organizations vs. Government Assistance
The particular strengths of community-based organizations for sex workers in Thailand have been their rapid responses to the pandemic, rather than expecting government assistance. Organizations such as Empower and SWING consist of current and former sex workers. They are therefore well aware of the need for a grassroots organization to provide medical care, PPE, food and shelter. These organizations are being assisted additionally by UN groups such as UNDP and UNAIDS.
Community-based organizations also provide some of the only lifelines for undocumented or stateless sex workers, who are frozen out of receiving any government assistance or accessing the job market for not having Thai identification.
An Uncertain Future
There is still much uncertainty of when tourism will return to Thailand. Even when it does, questions remain if the tourism industry will ever return to the level it was prior to the pandemic. The economic impact of sex tourism on Thailand’s economy gives an indication that there will need to be long-term strategies in dealing with the collapse of the industry during the pandemic. Luckily, community organizers have shown resilience in providing support.
– Matthew Brown