Special Feature: How is the Thai coup affecting sex workers in Bangkok's Nana District: A personal observation by a street-based, migrant sex worker

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From our regional correspondent based in Bangkok, Thailand.

On 22 May, 2014, the Royal Thai Military (RTM), under the leadership of General Prayuth Chan-ocha, a nationalist and pro-monarchist commander of the RTM, launched a coup d'état declaring the Thai Government dissolved and that martial law would be instated until a time “when the country was ready” for elections.

After dissolving the government, senate and repealing the 2007 Constitution, the junta, National Council for Peace and Order (NCOP) declared martial law. This included a nation-wide curfew between 10pm and 5am, banning gatherings of more than 5 (five) people in one place, a ban on political gatherings, the arrest and detention of politicians from both the PTP and DP, the detention of academics and anti-coup activists, the imposition of Internet censorship, total control of the media and a ban on anyone discussing publicly or privately any aspect of the coup, the junta or its relationship to the monarchy.

With a 10pm to 5am curfew, I immediately wondered how the curfew would impact Bangkok’s tens of thousands of sex workers, and whether Bangkok’s sex industry would evolve from a primarily bar based culture to an alternative non-venue form of sex work. Would there be an increase in Internet based, escort-style work? Would bars actually be opening at all, and if not, how were sex workers going to survive economically? Would “bar rules” for bar-based sex workers be adjusted? Would there be an increase in street based sex workers? My curiosity was not purely academic, as a migrant, street based Bangkok sex worker, I wanted to know what my peers thought about the curfew, and how they intended to survive given that most bars don’t begin to fill up until after 10pm.

Ironically; despite Thailand’s well established reputation for a high profile sex industry and its sex industry generating a significant percentage of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP); sex work remains illegal under the Prevention and Suppression Act of Prostitution (1996), the Penal Code Amendment Act and the Entertainment Places Act. In addition to the criminalisation of sex work, bar-based sex workers are subject to unofficial, yet institutionalised, employment regulations deemed “bar rules”. Sex workers employed within Thai bars receive a small stipend every month in return for attending work on time, selling a drinks quota, wearing a particular uniform, and for having a minimum number of bookings with clients. Sex workers (and their employers) refer to these as “bar rules”. Despite decades of advocacy from Thailand's peer based sex worker groups, EMPOWER Foundation and Sex Workers In Group (SWING), to recognise sex work as legitimate work with worker's rights; as sex work is criminalised in Thailand, there are no national Occupational Health and Safety or Minimum Standards of Employment policies which regulate the working conditions of bar based sex workers. Hence, “bar rules” at every venue vary and can include fining workers for taking too long in the toilet, stipulating the number of days a worker can take off within a month, fining workers for being late to work, fining workers for failing to make a monthly drinks quota, or any other “rule” instigated at the whim of the bar owner.

On the 24 May, 2014, several days after the announcement of the curfew, I visited Soi Cowboy during the late afternoon, with the deliberate hope of speaking to sex workers about how the curfew had affected them. My previous forays to Soi Cowboy during the day time were largely uneventful; without neon to distinguish the soi (a small street) from any other international bar oriented soi, it reeked of stale hops, the remnants of last night's carousing and a general sense of culpability for this morning's hangover. The only action  I'd ever witnessed in Soi Cowboy seemed to be a smattering of street stalls  tendering to local sex workers in casual garb, prior to dressing for the evening's work.

In addition to Nana Plaza and the Patpong area, Soi Cowboy is one of Bangkok’s most infamous red light districts; a soi of approximately 400meters. Containing over 100 neon-lit bars with beguiling names such as “Suzy Wong’s”, “The Doll House”, “Jungle Jim’s” and “The Rawhide Bar”, the soi has been catering to an international clientele since the late 1970s.Soi folklore is that the street was named after an African-American, Bernard Trink, a controversial journalist and veteran of the American war in Vietnam, whose attire included a distinctive Stetson 10 gallon-hat. Trink was not only the first American to open a go-go bar in the soi, but according to sex industry mythology, also responsible for building the reputation of the soi amongst visiting Americans on R&R (rest and rehabilitation). 

Expecting to find Soi Cowboy in its usual slow-daytime pace, to my surprise, several bars which wouldn’t usually open until 8pm, were filled with gyrating go-go dancers, gratified looking customers, and loud pop music blasting through the gaudy venue entrances, providing a soundtrack to the industrious mobile food vendors who had also materialised in relation to the increased action in the soi . Continuing down the soi, I recognised a sex worker (Khun June) with whom I had a previous interaction. Bar staff in various states of casual and professional dress were busily undertaking tasks to prepare for the early opening of the bar; recognising that I was encroaching on her sex work space, I attempted to engage in conversation with Khun June and the venue’s manager, Khun Noi, who was overseeing the re-decoration of the venue’s entrance, which was being festooned with elaborate strings of balloons. After explaining I was a sex worker and was interested in how the curfew was impacting on the incomes of my peers, Khun June, translated my request to Khun Noi. Both agreed to speak of their experiences of the coup and curfew- given that speaking critically of the junta is technically illegal, it was extremely brave of both Khun (a title denoting respect to a person, abbreviated to “K” in this article) June and K.Noi to speak to me.

Both K.June and K.Noi described the impact of the curfew on their business and the adaptations the sex work venues along Soi Cowboy had been forced to implement to circumvent the curfew. K. June explained that some businesses had closed totally, believing the curfew would last a few days at most. I asked if the sex workers working from the bars would still be paid, despite the venues being closed. K.June translated the questions to K.Noi, who replied “If you don’t work, you don’t get paid.” I asked about the curfew hours and significant impacts they’d had on businesses in Soi Cowboy. K.Noi, answered “You can see what we’ve been doing here- instead of opening late- we simply open earlier. The military comes around at 10pm to make sure we’re complying. We usually open at 8pm, but we can’t simply open for two hours, so we need to open earlier instead. We have drink specials to try to get our regulars to come earlier. Some of our regulars have been living in Bangkok for years- what do you think they do during the day time? They’ve already visited every temple and tourist attraction here and the real reason they live in Thailand is for the girls- so we hope that by opening early and selling them cheap drinks, this will attract them.”

Aside from changing the bar opening hours, I asked K.June and K.Noi if there were any other ways they have changed their business, for example, could they provide an escort service post-curfew hours. K.June was enthusiastic about the idea; however, K.Noi, was reticent. “We don’t know how long this curfew will last, a few days, a few weeks, a few months- there’s no point in getting ahead of ourselves and  make significant changes to the business until we know what’s happening.”

I asked K.Noi how his staff have been feeling? Are some of the staff scared? Do some want to return home (many of the bar staff are from provinces outside Bangkok)? K.Noi insists they are secure and well take cared for. “The girls are always talking on the phone to their families anyway; they reassure their families that they are well taken care of here. I am their Papa San. I make sure they are taken care of. Even this is a business, but we try to be like a family here. ” K.June adds, “Most of us are the only person supporting our families, we have children to send to school, parents to support, rent back home to pay or houses to maintain. Because when we visit, we bring gifts for our loved ones, and take care of their bills, sometimes our families think we are making hundreds of thousands of baht a month and when we have to say ‘no’ to them, it can be very difficult. Sometimes we barely make enough to cover our own expenses here in Bangkok. I’m worried that this coup will affect tourism in Thailand- people will see pictures of the protests and the military on their TV sets and they will decide not to come here. Also Ramadan is starting in a few weeks, which means all the Arab and Middle Eastern customers will stay at home.”

I ask both K.Noi on a business level and K.June on a personal level whether they’ve experienced a drop in income, and if there has been more competition for business between venues and between sex workers plying for customers. K.Noi seems enthusiastic that due to both the venues on either side of his bar closing for the short term, in addition to his strategy of opening early, promoting drinks specials and sprucing up his venue, his business hasn't yet  suffered any financial loss. K.June is more reticent, “Any change to the sex industry always affects the workers first. This place might look better, but the truth is, customers are just drinking more in a shorter time. That means better drink commissions for some of us, but it also means that doing short time jobs is more difficult because all the hotels close their doors at 10pm, so once you leave here at 10pm with a client, you have to stay the entire night at his hotel for the same amount of money you’d get for a short time job,  just because all the short time hotels refuse short time room stays after 10pm. Also, the Skytrain and the late night buses have all stopped running at 9pm, so that the military thinks that everyone will rush to get home by 10pm. I don’t live near Nana, so I need to take a taxi home. Some clients will give me money for a taxi home, but many already think that once they’ve paid the “bar fine” (an amount paid to the bar owner/ manager for the privilege of taking the sex worker off the premises) and my fee, that should be enough. They don’t realise that I don’t get to keep the “bar fine” (approximately 10 Euros) and a taxi to my house is nearly 200THB (approximately 4 Euros).”

I ask K.Noi about whether he has changed his “bar rules” to compensate for the curfew, for example, do workers need to sell as many drinks, given the shortened time the bar is open? Or has he reduced the number of clients workers must undertake a booking with, due to reduced clientele? K.June translates my questions, and after an animated discussion between the 2 two, K.Noi answers by claiming “Not to understand the questions”. I believe I may have inadvertently offended K.Noi, and within the next few minutes, K.Noi excuses himself from the conversation and K.June, under the watchful eye of K.Noi, returns to preparing the bar for opening.

On 25 May, 2014, feminist sex worker allies converging in Pattaya for a conference, reported a spontaneous protest by Pattaya’s bar owners and bar-based sex workers, in response to the curfew imposed by the coup. This protest, which involved sex workers and sex industry owners of all genders, was reportedly organised by the sex worker community through word-of-mouth, and marched through Pattaya’s most infamous sex industry area, Walking Street, chanting slogans and engaging with passer-bys, explaining the impact of the curfew on the local sex industry.

On 27 May, 2014, the junta extended the curfew from 12:00am to 4:00am. How this impacts on the Thai sex industry remains to be seen, but given my conversation with K.June, it is doubtful that the working conditions of sex workers are likely to improve.