Feature: Sex Workers of Empower Chiang Mai, Thailand, and Conflict with Anti-Trafficking Work

March 1st, 2007

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Keywords: sex work, Empower, human rights

Empower is a Thai NGO founded in 1985 with offices in Bangkok, Pattaya, Mae Sai, and Chiang Mai. Empower has a political voice advocating for recognition of women in the entertainment industry and to legitimize their career choices. (Prostitution is illegal in Thailand). Empower also provides education and resources for sex workers including English language training, HIV/AIDS awareness, and free condom distribution programs to accompany their outreach. Empower works with adult sex workers and has an anti-human trafficking stance. (at right: keeping up on the news at empower)

My time with Empower consisted of an initial vetting of my intentions, a discussion by the women as to what I could report on, followed by a series of interviews, some time spent at their facility observing the community and educational resources, and a final night–Valentine’s Day–out with Empower women to distribute Empower-branded condoms to many of the bars where they or their associates work. (at left: learning english can be fun)

In Chiang Mai, according to Empower members, the social and economic structure of sex work is as follows:
• Street Girl: ostensibly works freelance from the street
• Bar Girls: ostensibly works freelance in their bar of choice. These positions are often very social; girls will wait for clients to arrive, will engage them in conversation, will encourage the client to buy drinks from which the girl may receive a commission, the girl may also be paid an hourly wage, the girl is free to make her own arrangement for a ‘date’, if the client takes the girl from the bar there may be a ‘bar fine’ intended to compensate the bar owner for the loss of a worker for the evening. Bar girls may be university students, mothers (married or single), or illegal immigrants.
• Karaoke Bar Girl: A similar arrangement as the bar girl but with more job responsibilities/structure at the place of employment. Karaoke bar girls tend to be able to exact higher fees for their sex work.
• Go-Go Bar: a topless or nude dance club where the girls take turns dancing on a stage or mingling with the clients. According to Empower women, go-go bar girls receive the highest fees for bar-based sex workers. Club access for clients is strictest here.
• Brothel workers: According to Empower, brothel owners have shifted to more bar-based business models due to high profile crack downs on brothels.

Empower, being comprised of sex workers, is also faced with the issue of trafficking in persons. In Chiang Mai the victims are predominantly hill tribe or Burmese. However Empower spokes person Liz Hilton–and other NGO sources–point to Thailand as increasingly being a “transit country” through which trafficked persons are routed on their way to a final destination like Japan, the United States, or Europe. Hilton believes political pressure to end the persecution of Burmese must occur before trafficking of Burmese can effectively be addressed. Until then, she feels, Burmese will continue to seek better lives as illegal immigrants, a status which makes them vulnerable to exploitation. (at right: empower english class)

Whether or not one believes sex work should be legalized, sex workers and trafficking victims share similar risks because of they are often vulnerable, marginalized populations. As such sex work tends to be targeted for investigation of trafficked persons. (at left: getting read for the night out)

In June, 2003, following a high profile brothel raid on 2 May, 2003 of the Baan Rom Yen brothel by Thai Police, Trafcord (which receives US support), and with intelligence provided by the US founded, Christian faith-based International Justice Mission, Empower published a report on the “human rights violations…when ‘rescued’ by antitrafficking groups…”

Empower’s accusatory report states “the focus on trafficking in persons has meant many groups with little or no experience on the issues of migration, labor, sex work or women’s rights have been created to take advantage of the large sums of money available to support anti-trafficking activities.” (at right: handing out empower condoms at chiang mai bars)

The Empower report is detailed, indicting of human rights abuse, and appeals for recommended changes. When illegal immigrants are discovered in raids they are often repatriated to their country of origin whereupon they can be re-trafficked, sometimes forcibly. But in seeking better economic opportunity, or to escape persecution, immigrants often pay agents to help them cross the border illegally in the first place. Empower states that many ‘rescued’ individuals from recent raids were willfully working in the brothels and many who are deported simply re-enter Thailand illegally, often incurring debt and re-exposing themselves to exploitation. The Empower report lists several recommendations including greater recognition of sex workers as partners in anti-trafficking and human rights defenders.

A BBC News article dated 13 April, 2004, states the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has been working with a group of Cambodian children who have repeatedly been trafficked to Bangkok for labor. IOM, the article states, acknowledges the trafficking cycle is difficult to break and is attempting a new, more pre-emptive campaign.

My repeated requests over four months to International Justice Mission media relations staff and senior officers failed to gain access to IJM Chiang Mai, Thailand, or Phnom Penh, Cambodia, office staff for interviews or activities for documentation.

However media relations staff person for IJM, Emily Nichols, did state the agency’s mission is four-fold: Immediate Victim Relief (via raids); Perpetrator Accountability and Justice based on local laws, Nichols noted IJM along with input of other NGOs to the US State Dept. Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report helped pressure the Cambodian government to change and enforce trafficking laws; Structural Preventions through laws to protect victims and create a deterrent for traffickers; Victim Aftercare which is currently done through partnership with other NGO’s but IJM is working on a pilot program for its own aftercare.

Nichols did acknowledge public criticism of IJM efforts, citing the “raid in Thailand four to five years ago” and that “we are fallible, but we learn.”

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2 Responses to “Feature: Sex Workers of Empower Chiang Mai, Thailand, and Conflict with Anti-Trafficking Work”

  1. Den Shima says:

    Very informative and touching. I really appreciate the information you shared.



  2. tim says:


    I’m glad you found this informative, and I hope you were able to read the report by Empower as well. The prostitution argument is a difficult one….



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