Covid-19 protest in front of Government House demands assistance for sex workers

Representatives from the sex worker rights group Empower Foundation went to Government House on Tuesday morning (29 June) to demand assistance from the government for sex workers and service sector workers affected by the closure of entertainment establishments during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Participants stood in front of the Government House carrying red umbrellas, a symbol of the sex workers' rights movement. In front of them are rows of high heels, which they brought as a symbol of their profession. 

Representatives of workers in massage parlours, bars, karaoke bars, and other places of entertainment went to Government House at 10.00 on 29 June to submit an open letter to the government demanding assistance, after the government’s order to close entertainment and nightlife establishments cost them their jobs and income.

They also brought around 30 pairs of high heels and a number of bikinis, and displayed them in front of Government House as a representation of their profession. They also hung bikinis and underwear from the gates, but were later told by police officers to remove them as soon as the activity ended because it was “inappropriate.”

Bikinis and underwear brought by the group as a symbol of their profession and were hung from the Government House gates during the event. 

The group is calling on the government to provide assistance for sex workers and other service sector workers at 5000 baht per month per person until entertainment and nightlife businesses can reopen and they are allowed to return to work. The assistance must also cover those who are hired on temporary contracts or receive pay per job, as well as indigenous and migrant workers who may not be documented and are not able to access government aid provided to Thai workers in other professions, which are the same demands made in a letter to the government on 20 April 2021. They also asked that the government have a concrete policy on how to solve the issues regarding vaccine allocations and reopening entertainment establishments. 

Their open letter was received by Sompas Nilapan, Advisor to the Office of the Permanent-Secretary of the Office of the Prime Minister.

Empower Foundation’s Thanta Laowilawanyakul, as a representative of massage parlour workers, said that since massage parlours were ordered to close during the pandemic and the workers do not have benefits or social security, they did not receive any support from their employers and the assistance they do receive was not enough even to cover rent. As money from government aid schemes is not given in cash but on an application that can only be used with registered stores, Thanta said that the workers are not able to use the money to cover all of their needs, and they would like to know if the government will compensate them in any other ways.

Lily (pseudonym), who works in a go-go bar, said that she has been working in go-go bars for three years, and has noticed that the usually crowded tourist streets are now quiet. She said that they have never had any benefit or social security, because the bars do not employ them on a permanent contract.

Lily said she has now run out of savings as her other family members have also lost their jobs, and that she has already tried to find other sources of income, including becoming an online vendor, but the situation is difficult as workers in other sectors are also losing their jobs.

“It’s not that all we are asking for is money. We’re also looking for work. Anything I can do, I’d do it. I’ve worked many jobs. I’ve sold things online. But I think the government must take responsibility because the government the closures. At least if we can go back to work, we might get some daily pay, but right now, we get nothing,” said Lily.

Sompas Nilapan (second from left), Advisor to the Office of the Permanent-Secretary of the Office of the Prime Minister, came to receive the open letter. 

Yada Kaewburee, a representative of independent and online sex workers, said that sex workers were not only denied protection from the government and did not have income or assistance, but they were also strictly suppressed, because sex work is still criminalized under Thai law and is not considered work. They continue to face sting operations and extortion from officials. Meanwhile, they are stigmatized by society for causing new outbreaks.

“We are starving to death and cannot work to feed ourselves. We are also oppressed and stigmatized by society for causing the third outbreak of this disease, even though the government did not give us any help as citizens and human beings, other than creating these systems that gave us no choice but having to work in secret and endangering our health and lives,” said Yada.

Gender equality activist Sirisak Chited, as a representative of spa workers, said that spa workers are often hired on a temporary basis, with many working for several establishments, therefore their employers are not responsible for them as employees. As spas have been closed during the pandemic, the workers have had to leave their jobs and tried to find income elsewhere as the pandemic became more prolonged.

Workers had to lower their expenses by staying at some spas where the owners have taken pity on them. Meanwhile, many turned to social media, but Sirisak said that conducting business online put them at a higher risk of arrest, as their conversations with customers can be used as evidence if they discuss payment for sex. 

Sirisak said that spas and massage parlours are the first businesses to receive closure orders because they are seen as high-risk as customers and workers are touching each other’s body and the activities take place in a closed room.

“We have always cooperated with the government to help stop the spread of this disease. We have never thought to protest or make a fuss, because we see it as taking responsibility together, but what we want is to receive the same protection as other professions, not more than them,” Sirisak said. “It’s time you accept that commercial sex is real, as valuable and dignified as every other profession, so we want equal right to welfare and assistance as other professions, as workers and a profession that creates revenue for the country.”

Placards placed at the event say "No money, no honey, no GDP" and "The government can stop the crisis if we have social security." 

Rrepresentatives of the group then went to parliament in the afternoon to submit another petition to several Move Forward Party (MFP) MPs.

The group said that they were the first group to be affected by government orders, and they have not received any help during the past year, so they want to petition both the government and the opposition. They said that their profession provides a lot of revenue for the tourism industry, but they were the first to be abandoned during the pandemic, while they have not had access to social security and other state welfare.

Their petition was received by Tunyawaj Kamolwongwat, member of the Standing Committee on Children, Young People, Women, the Elderly, Persons with Disabilities, and Ethnic Groups, who is currently working on a new bill to protect sex workers; Sirikanya Tansakun, Chair of the Standing Committee on Economic Development; and Suthep Ou-oun, Chair of the Standing Committee on Labour.

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Thai government has closed entertainment and nightlife establishments and banned gatherings and events as part of its disease control measures. Since March 2020, these establishments have been closed for over 200 days, affecting not only businessowners but also daily wage workers, including musicians, wait staff, bartenders, and street food vendors.

A group of representatives from the night-time and entertainment industry, including nightlife business owners, event organisers, musicians, and members of the Craft Beer Association, also went to parliament on 17 June 2021 to file a petition for government support for those affected by Covid-19. The petition called for the government to allow them to reopen by 1 July 2021 while still following disease control measures and to allow on-site alcohol sales. They also asked that performances be allowed under disease control measures, as well as for the government to allocate vaccines for entertainment and nightlife professionals.

Participants gathering the front of the Government House. One person on the left most side of the picture is holding a sign saying "The police should stop sting operations to prevent Covid." 

The new government restrictions, which will be implemented for 30 days starting on 28 June, included a ban on dine-in services in restaurants in ‘dark-red zone’ provinces such as Bangkok, Nonthaburi, Pathum Thani, and Samut Prakan. Meanwhile, all construction work must pause and construction sites will be closed, after several Covid-19 clusters were found in construction worker camps.

Shopping malls and department stores are allowed to open only until 21.00, while bars and other nightlife establishments are to remain closed.  

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