A group of women sit around a table making dreamcatchers with colorful bits of yarn, chatting about their families, work and the thick smog enveloping Chiang Mai city in northern Thailand.

Just another workplace scene, except the women are all sex workers who meet their clients at Can Do Bar, which they own as a collective, benefitting from health insurance, fixed hours and time off – which are typically denied to sex workers.

The bar was set up in 2006 by Empower Foundation, a non-profit founded in Bangkok’s Patpong red-light district for sex workers who are still stigmatized despite widespread tolerance of Thailand’s thriving sex industry.

Thousands of Thai and migrant sex workers have learned from Empower to negotiate with bar and massage parlor owners for better conditions, and to lobby the government to decriminalize their work to improve their incomes, safety and wellbeing.

“People say we should stop doing what we do, and sew or bake cookies instead – but why are only those jobs considered appropriate?” said Mai Chanta, a 30-something native of Chiang Mai, who has been a sex worker for about eight years.

“This is what we choose to do, and we feel a sense of pride and satisfaction that we are just like other workers,” said Mai, dressed in a calf-length skirt and a t-shirt that reads “United Sex Workers Nations”.

Millions of women across the world choose sex work to make an income. Yet only a few countries – including Australia, New Zealand, Germany, the Netherlands, Senegal and Peru – recognize it as legal, leaving prostitutes elsewhere vulnerable to abuse.

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No sewing please, we’re Sex Workers: Thai prostitution battle stigma by Rina Chandran

May 15th, 2019