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Don’t talk to us about sewing machines: Talk to us about worker’s rights

Sex workers ran a number of exciting and challenging sessions during the AWID Forum in Istanbul. In their interactions with delegates they have been stressing the importance of listening to sex workers and acknowledging sex work as work. There has also been a plea for the silent majority of feminists who support sex workers rights to raise their voices to condemn interventions like anti-trafficking raid and rescues which are often carried out in the name of feminism.

One well attended break out session that combined presentations with film clips was ‘Don’t talk to us about sewing machines: Talk to us about worker’s rights’ which was organised by the Paulo Longo Research Initiative. The panel was moderated by Meena Seshu of Sangram and Laura Agustín and Sachumi Mayeo of Empower spoke.

Sachumi explained how sex work was her main job and her hobby is sex worker activism with Empower. She had come to AWID, funded by earnings from her clients, in order to meet with women of many different occupations and nationalities. Trying to reach out to the audience to explain how she views sex work and the way in which the sex industry is currently structured she gave her take on its evolution:

“Nobody in the world knows when the first payment happened for making a meal, cleaning a house, or making or washing pants or selling sex. All we know that the selling and buying of different services has been going on for thousands of years and has developed into work and industries – chefs and tailors and the fashion world and sex workers. Many professions have developed.”

She felt the sex industry had developed in a different way to others because it developed without support from government. Had there been some political will and governments had supported improvements in sex work, including that human rights were upheld, things could have moved much further and in a more progressive direction.  

Sachumi outlined a new threat to sex workers in the form of raid and rescue to deal with trafficking. This led 200 women at Empower to join together in a research project to produce the report – Hit and Run. The report explains that:

“For the past ten years sex workers in Thailand have had our human rights violated under the guise of implementing anti-trafficking law and policy. We have experienced an onslaught of slander vilifying our entire industry; violent police raids on our workplaces, arbitrary detention, forced rehabilitation in government shelters and deportation. We have continually advocated for reform and human rights protections especially for migrant sex workers. Despite these efforts our industry is still over represented in anti-trafficking raids and misrepresented as inherently violent, exploitative and an equivalent to human trafficking. People still do not know about or understand how current antitrafficking practices are not only abusing the rights of individuals, but are a huge barrier to our

efforts to further reduce exploitation in our industry. 

In 2010 Empower decided to undertake a nation-wide community research project to identify and document the impact of the current Thai anti-trafficking law, policy and practice, on sex workers in Thailand, and to develop relevant and achievable solutions. Our secondary aims were to strengthen knowledge and awareness amongst our community about our legal and human rights; and to build our skills to design, carry out and collate research for use in our human rights advocacy.”

Sachumi provided examples of the ways in which anti-trafficking interventions had led to abuse for example detention without charge. One woman in a detention centre, when told she would have to do sewing as vocational training, organised a strike which the other women went along with. Her reasoning was she could sew since she was 9 years old – she didn’t need to be taught. Inappropriate and poorly thought through vocational training which aims to save sex workers and remove them from the sex industry is a common feature of so called rehabilitation programmes. But far from being powerless victims sex workers demonstrate their resistance and opposition to this system which they believe is unjust – the strike and the research are two examples of this. As Sachumi put it, “Her friends are smart and strong and sexy and they fight back.” Many of the issues that she covered in her presentation were elaborated in the film shown in the session, ‘Last Rescue in Siam’, which had the audience hooting with laughter.

Laura Agustín provided an overview of the position she has developed in her research for Sex at the Margins and subsequent enquiry which is documented on her blog ‘The Naked Anthropologist’. She argued that the principles of diversity, empowerment, autonomy and control over our bodies that characterised the women’s movement in the 1960s and 1970s has dissipated.  Simultaneously there has been a rise in a movement underpinned by the need to save women which she has coined the rescue industry.

An inclusive social movement should recognise that not everyone feels the same way about sex but we have lost the ability to be tolerant with each other. Laura argues that in the feminist movement the fact that some people earn a living in a certain way – by selling sexual services – is unacceptable. This has been turned into an ideological conflict.

Laura explained that where once pornography and prostitution were seen as the problem – now the idea of trafficking has taken over and become a major topic in feminism. Whilst very extreme stories are told about trafficking it is very difficult to quantify the actual numbers of people affected. In reality there is a continuum in which you can always find the most enslaved and miserable people at one end and the legendary happy hooker at the other but both of them are probably rare in comparison to the people who sit in the middle.

She elaborated that donor aid conditionalities and departments within the UN have supported the anti-trafficking movements. US aid is tied to progress in combatting trafficking and so countries are keen to catch perpetrators. Yet for many people working in the informal labour market  intermediaries and smugglers are necessary to help you move around and find jobs. In current framings of the issue all of these people are erroneously called traffickers. This leads to the type of anti-trafficking intervention that Sachumi has outlined. And there is money to be made from anti-trafficking initiatives: 1000s of non governmental organisations (NGOs) have been founded to do this work and businesses like the Body Shop run campaigns that claim that buying a bar of soap can help save a slave.

Laura ended for a plea for feminists to listen to sex workers themselves and base their offers of support on the expressed needs of sex wokers rather than imagining that you have a better insight than them into their situation. Participants then watched a film made by the Media Director of the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW), Dale Kongmont who has put together a compilation of footage of raids so that participants can see what they look like in the real world. Where ‘Last Rescue in Siam’ gave the audience the giggles this video caused gasps of horror as people saw the violence and abuse that sex workers experience during raids and subsequent incarceration.

There were a wide range of questions and comments after the session ranging from reflections on the inaccuracy of methods of age testing young asylum seekers to the relatively invisible issue of marital rape. One questioner had read Nick Kristoff’s book Half the Sky and wondered whether it was it inaccurate or whether he just failed to make the distinction between sex work and trafficking. Laura suggested that his position stems from the fact that he does not accept that sex work is legitimate work and is therefore involved in the social campaign to abolish prostitution. This leads him to take part in brothel raids and Tweet as he does it.

Sachumi suggested that Kristoff’s depiction of sex work in Thailand is based on a legend or myth from ancient history and is not something that she has seen in her lifetime as a worker.

Another audience member asked, seemingly incredulously, whether the women who take part in raids really consider themselves, and identify as, feminists. Laura explained that she calls this particular brand ‘fundamentalist feminism’ which isn’t necessarily an insult. Fundamentalist feminism has a very reductionist attitude to sex. There is a battle raging over which form of feminism will be the winner. The attitude of fundamentalist feminists towards sex workers is a very classical colonialism in which white people and very well educated people, and there are ‘brown white people’ too as Laura reminded us, have decided what is good for other people.

One questioner asked about under age women (or girls) who are incarcerated as sex workers when they are actually the victims of sexual crimes. She suggested that sex workers need to acknowledge the plight or the burdens of women who may or may not be sex workers but are victims. There is also a need to support the sex workers who are in prison. Laura explained that the sex worker rights movement tries to embrace all of this but doesn’t treat people under 18 years old as if they don’t know their own mind rather it listens to them. She agreed about the need to support these girls and women.

A quick comment on Belarus from an audience member – which she described as the last dictatorship in Europe – was that they use anti-trafficking policy and campaigns to take their place on the world stage, and the irony is that they are funded by the US to do this.

A question centred on the notion of choice. Laura explained that she does not use the word choice because of its association with neo-liberalism. When one uses ‘choice’ what is implied is that as long as people have chosen then any of the harms done to sex workers are no longer important. Sachumi elegantly quoted the definition of choice from the Empower Bad Girls Dictionary, “At a restaurant one gets a menu and looks at all the options before picking out a selection according to ones preference. Some restaurants have a huge menu, some only a few dishes, either way the process is the same. Vegans may not understand when you choose the steak; others may not understand when we choose sex work.”