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Addressing Direct and Indirect Sex Worker Vulnerabilities in Cambodia28 June 2011
In a report about to be released by the International Labor Organisation (ILO), research from Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA and partners reveals the complex nature of labour exploitation, direct and indirect sex work and the effects of the global financial crisis in Cambodia.
The report, 'Cambodia - Addressing HIV Vulnerabilities of Indirect Sex Workers During the Financial Crisis: Situation Analysis, Strategies and Entry Points for HIV/AIDS Workplace Education' doesn't look at sex work in the highly patronising way of previous research that views sex workers only as 'HIV vectors' and a risk to the general population, but rather is proactive in identifying the areas in which workers can protect themselves in their own right.
It also looks at the broader chain of labour exploitation that occurs in Cambodia. Rather than sweatshop labour being "an escalator out of poverty", as described by Nikolas Kristof of the New York Times several years ago, getting a job in a garment factory for many women interviewed was the beginning of a broader cycle.
The Cambodian garment sector is characterised by the second lowest garment wages in the world, low levels of job security, long hours and unrewarding and physically arduous work. This leads some garment factory workers to engage in sex work to supplement their income. When the global financial crisis saw at least 20,000 women dismissed from their jobs with no compensation or entitlements, sex work was one of the few options for many of them.
Surveys between 2008-2009 found estimated increases of several hundred percent of both 'direct sex workers' (brothel based and freelance) and 'entertainment workers' (karaoke, massage and beer promoters who may or may not engage in casual sex work). The massive influx of women has had a significant downward effect on incomes, but also the capacity to negotiate safe sex with customers.
The increase in the number of sex workers also coincided with the implementation of the Cambodian government's 'Law on Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation' which saw the closure of many brothels which had previously provided HIV education under the 100% Condom Use Program and distributed free condoms to customers. This has seen a drop from 90% condom usage to 70% among 'entertainment workers'.
But the research reveals that many of these women do not consider themselves victims. Although they are making a choice within a very limited frame, many of the women interviewed maintain a higher standard of living as sex workers than as factory workers. For example, Sotha*, a 24 year old women, formerly worked in a garment factory earning around US$50 per month - but as a waitress and occasional sex worker can earn almost US$200 per month, while working less than half the hours.
There is no denying, however, that the work can be dangerous with significant risk of sexual violence, HIV and exploitation. What is clear from the report is that sex work, both direct and indirect, is fluid and a constantly changing dynamic depending on family obligations, personal relationships and simple cost of living pressures. Many see the work as a necessary evil to a better life for them and their families.
It is clear that the response cannot be to moralise or 'rescue' women from sex work but understand HIV and other vulnerabilities as essentially an occupational health and safety issue. The report notes the success of previous workplace interventions, such as the 100% condom use campaign in brothels.
The report recommends that a occupational health and safety framework approach be taken, with sex work risks being viewed as workplace risks, a major one being HIV. By destigmatising sex work and treating it as work, as opposed to a HIV threat to society, women will be encouraged to use health services as is their right.
Congratulations to Neil Poetsckha, Senior Researcher for the report and former HIV Advisor for Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA, as well as the APHEDA Cambodia team, especially Barbara Fitzgerald, Sok San Lim, Ly Kim Song and Chhea Thao. Research was facilitated by the cooperation of Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA's project partner Cambodian Women's Development Association, amongst others.
We look forward to sharing the full report with you once it is released.
*Names in this report have been changed to protect privacy
Matt Hilton - Cambodia Project Officer
Ph: (02) 9264 9343
Fax: (02) 9261 1118
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