CHIANG MAI — In red light districts across Thailand, sex workers gather on the streets every night looking for customers. The government estimates there are 77,000 prostitutes in the country, while NGOs say the figure is closer to 300,000, but both agree that sex trafficking is a significant problem.
Even though the industry is widespread, sex work is technically illegal in Thailand. One establishment — owned and run by women who work in the industry — is challenging the norm and trying to ensure they can practice their profession on their own terms.
It's Friday night here in a tiny bar in the red light district of Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand. The night is young, but the place is already crowded, with just one seat at the bar still free.
A group of women are hanging out at the bar, eating, gossiping and teasing each other. They could be students, colleagues or factory workers, but in fact they work in the sex industry and this is their bar.
In 2006, a group of about 30 such workers pooled their money to open this place, which they decided to call Can Do. Together they raised about $30,000 to start their business, a place they envisioned that sex workers could work, free from exploitation and abuse, where they could court clients safely.
It's the only bar in Thailand of its kind.
"Sawatdee ka, would you care for a drink or anything, sir?" asks Fah, who at 22, is the youngest sex worker here.
With her long black hair and broad smile, she's leaning over the bar offering a customer a drink. In jeans and a T-shirt, she looks like a college student, but she has been working in the industry for three years, starting right after high school.
Fah say she enjoys her job. "We work only at night, then we can go freely anywhere in the daytime," she says. "We can travel, and we can also learn languages from our foreign clients."
Good working conditions
Mai Janta, who is in her early thirties, is the manager of Can Do. She says the bar is unique because its workers are well paid and treated with respect.
"And we have certain working hours," she says, "We close at midnight. We can take drink fees, and when the bar earns more than 2,500 baht [$69.50] each night, we get an additional 10% income. Any tips from customers go directly to each worker."
Unlike other bars in the red light district, there are no high-heeled boots or frilly skirts here — and no naked dancing. Women at Can Do wear whatever they want.
Around 50 women are registered to work at the bar, but they can also work elsewhere if they choose. Usually they make between $30 and $50 a night, much higher than many other places.
Fah and Peung are talking about a karaoke parlor they worked in several years ago. They say they were paid only $3 to $4 a night, and sometimes had to work until 6 o'clock in the morning.
Peung started in this line of work after she got divorced six years ago, and she is very frank about her profession. People who come to help sex workers always do so with their own agenda, she says, usually starting from the premise that the work choice is bad and the industry's workers are victims of poverty or trafficking.
But that isn't always true, she says. "Journalists love a story about policemen cracking down to help those women," she says. "That's a great story, and many people take great credit for it. But have you ever asked those women if they want to be helped?"
Fah, Peung and others have all worked in bars and brothels where their salaries were docked if they gained weight, didn't smile enough, or if the patrons didn't buy them enough drinks.
The best way to help, they say, is to decriminalize the trade so that women aren't subject to the whims of rapacious employers.
"We just want to be under and protected by the labor law, recognized as regular workers," she says. "What we need is only social security, salary, some days off and equal rights."
Despite the social criticism they face for working in a taboo industry, Fah says they just have to shrug when the neighbors gossip.
"I let them talk, but I don't take it into account because doing so would just be to let myself down," she says. "No one can let you down if you don't allow them to."