VNExpress has reported that authorities in Hanoi, Vietnam are planning their ‘biggest crackdown ever’ for 2017. The city is aiming to meet a quota of 500 charges this year. They want to avoid repeat offenders being charged and provide financial assistance to help sex workers find new jobs.
Organisations such as ILO Vietnam have pointed out that this approach fails to address the needs of sex workers and ignores the findings of research – which demonstrates that the vast majority of sex workers want to work in the sex industry because it is a good option for them. The director of ILO Vietnam, Chang-Hee Lee, said that the government and relevant agencies need to be implementing measures that ensure the work health and safety of sex workers are protected by the law and by their employers.
According to ILO, sex workers are some of the most vulnerable to violence and poor working conditions in Vietnam. This is largely a consequence of dealing with regular police raids and persistent fear of theft and violence, especially for women working on the street.
Sex work and activities surrounding sex work are criminalised in Vietnam. Workers are often fined and sometimes sent to prison. Up until 2013, sex workers were commonly sent to compulsory rehabilitation centres when caught in raids. Sex workers who use drugs and sex workers living with HIV were particularly impacted by punitive measures. They were often denied proper medical treatment. According to statistics from Vietnamese social affairs agencies, half the sex workers sentenced to rehabilitation centres were labelled as ’drug addicts’; and a third of them were HIV positive.
Truong Thi Hong Tam, a retired sex worker pointed out to the media that most sex workers returned to sex work after being released from the rehabilitation centres.
Since 2013, sex workers have been charged with fines of around $25 - $100 USD). Sex workers have also been encouraged to quit sex work, and been paid a small lump sum amount to attend vocational training. However, according to HCMC’s Women’s Union, this training has led to jobs which pay significantly less than sex work.
Data may vary but figures from the International Labor Organization (ILO) suggest that there are nearly 101,300 sex workers in Vietnam, of which it is estimated 72,000 are women. As has been documented by NSWP members across the world, policing practices and criminalisation have never resulted in eradicating sex work. Such approaches have, however, increased stigma, discrimination, violence and isolation.
Those calling for decriminalisation of sex work have also cited evidence that it is an effective way of preventing HIV transmission.
As the Lancet found in its special edition in 2014, “decriminalisation of sex work would be the preventative measure with the biggest impact. Across all settings, it would reduce HIV infections by 33% to 46% over the next decade.”