assuming massive proportions in Southeast Asia Economic incentives
and hardships fuel the growth of the sex sector
women, children are particularly vulnerable to commercial sexual
Prostitution in Southeast Asia has grown so rapidly in recent
decades that the sex business has assumed the dimensions of a
commercial sector, one that contributes substantially to employment
and national income in the region, according to a new report *
published by the Geneva-based International Labour Office.
suggests that in spite of Asia's economic crisis, the economic and
social forces driving the sex industry show no signs of slowing
down, particularly in light of rising unemployment in the region.
According to Ms.
Lin Lim, the ILO official who directed the study, "If the evidence
from the recession of the mid-1980s is any indication, then it is
very likely that women who lose their jobs in manufacturing and
other service sectors and whose families rely on their remittances
may be driven to enter the sex sector." As to the prospect of a
slowdown in the demand for commercial sex services following
region-wide declines in personal income, the ILO report notes that
"poverty has never prevented men from frequenting prostitutes, whose
fees are geared to the purchasing power of their customers."
Moreover, after decades of interaction with other economies, the sex
industry in Asia is effectively internationalized: overseas demand
is likely to be unaltered by domestic circumstances and may be even
fuelled as exchange rate differentials make sex tourism an even
cheaper thrill for customers from other regions.
researched prior to the current crisis, the ILO report warns that
the growing scale of prostitution in Asia, combined with its
increasing economic and international significance, have serious
implications relating to public morality, social welfare,
transmission of HIV/AIDS, criminality, violations of the basic human
rights of commercial sex workers, and commercial sexual exploitation
especially of the child victims of prostitution. Yet, there is no
clear legal stance nor effective public policies or programmes to
deal with prostitution in any of the countries.
"The sex sector
is not recognized as an economic sector in official statistics,
development plans or government budgets." Governments are
constrained not only because of the sensitivity and complexity of
the issues involved but also because the circumstances of the sex
workers can range widely from freely chosen and remunerative
employment to debt bondage and virtual slavery. The countries have,
however, taken action to eliminate child prostitution, an activity
the ILO report caracterizes as "a serious human rights violation and
an intolerable form of child labour." Child prostitution risks
growing as poverty and unemployment strain family income and
contribute to the expanding ranks of street children who are an
increasingly common sight on the streets of cities worldwide.
entitled The Sex Sector: The economic and social bases of
prostitution in Southeast Asia, is based on detailed studies of
prostitution and commercial sex work in four countries - Indonesia,
Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand. The authors of the ILO report
emphasize that the scrutiny of the sex-sector of these four
countries does not suggest that they have a unique prostitution
problem or that their social, moral or economic values are
especially aberrant. In fact, the national case studies in the
report "are illustrative of the situation in many countries," and
prostitution and its attendant problems are universal.
Employment and Revenue Generator
says that although the exact number of working prostitutes in these
countries is impossible to calculate due to the illegal or
clandestine nature of the work, anywhere between 0.25 per cent and
1.5 per cent of the total female population are engaged in
in 1993/4 suggest that there were between 140,000 to 230,000
prostitutes in Indonesia. In Malaysia, the estimated figures for
working prostitutes range from 43,000 to 142,000, but the higher
figure is more probable, according to the ILO analysis. In the
Philippines, estimates range from 100,000 to 600,000, but the
likelihood is that there are nearly half a million prostitutes in
the country. In Thailand, the Ministry of Public Health survey
recorded 65,000 prostitutes in 1997 but unofficial sources put the
figure between 200,000 to 300,000. There are also tens of thousands
of Thai and Filipino prostitutes working in other countries.
are mainly women, but there are also male, transvestite and child
If we include
the owners, managers, pimps and other employees of the sex
establishments, the related entertainment industry and some segments
of the tourism industry, the number of workers earning a living
directly or indirectly from prostitution would be several millions.
A 1997 study by the Ministry of Public Health of Thailand found that
of a total of 104,262 workers in some 7,759 establishments where
sexual services could be obtained, only 64,886 were sex workers; the
rest were support staff including cleaners, waitresses, cashiers,
parking valets and security guards. A Malaysian study lists
occupations with links to the sex sector as medical practitioners
(who provide regular health checks for the prostitutes), operators
of food stalls in the vicinity of sex establishments, vendors of
cigarettes and liquor, and property owners who rent premises to
providers of sexual services. In the Philippines, establishments
known to be involved in the sex sector include special tourist
agencies, escort services, hotel room service, saunas and health
clinics, casas or brothels, bars, beer gardens, cocktail lounges,
cabarets and special clubs.
The sex sector
in the four countries is estimated to account for anywhere from 2 to
14 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and the revenues it
generates are crucial to the livelihoods and earnings potential of
millions of workers beyond the prostitutes themselves. Government
authorities also collect substantial revenues in areas where
prostitution thrives, illegally from bribes and corruption, but
legally from licensing fees and taxes on the many hotels, bars,
restaurants and game rooms that flourish in its wake.
In Thailand, for
example, close to US$300 million is transferred annually to rural
families by women working in the sex sector in urban areas, a sum
that in many cases exceeds the budgets of government-funded
development programmes. For the 1993-95 period, the estimate was
that prostitution yielded an annual income of between US$22.5 and 27
In Indonesia the
financial turnover of the sex sector is estimated at US$1.2 billion
to US$3.3 billion per year, or between 0.8 and 2.4 per cent of the
country's GDP, with much of prostitutes' earnings remitted from the
urban brothel complexes they work in to the villages their families
live in. In the Jakarta area alone, there is an estimated annual
turnover of US$91 million from activities related to the sale of
Incentives Drive the Industry
current studies highlight the tragic stories of individual
prostitutes, especially of women and children deceived or coerced
into the practice, the ILO surveys point out that many workers
entered for pragmatic reasons and with a general sense of awareness
of the choice they were making. About one-half of Malaysian
prostitutes interviewed for the study said it was "friends who
showed the way to earn money easily," a pattern that is replicated
in the other study countries.
Sex work is
usually better paid than most of the options available to young,
often uneducated women, in spite of the stigma and danger attached
to the work. In all four of the countries studied, sex work provided
significantly higher earnings than other forms of unskilled labour.
In many cases,
sex work is often the only viable alternative for women in
communities coping with poverty, unemployment, failed marriages and
family obligations in the nearly complete absence of social welfare
mothers with children, it is often a more flexible, remunerative and
less time-consuming option than factory or service work.
sex establishments revealed that while a significant proportion of
sex workers claimed they wanted to leave the occupation if they
could, many expressed concern about the earnings they risked losing
if they changed jobs.
Even so, the
surveys also reveal that in the experience of most of the women
surveyed, prostitution is one of the most alienating forms of labour.
Over 50 per cent
of the women surveyed in Philippine massage parlours said they
carried out their work "with a heavy heart," and 20 per cent said
they were "conscience stricken because they still considered sex
with customers a sin." Interviews with Philippine bar girls revealed
that more than half of them felt "nothing" when they had sex with a
client, the remainder said the transactions saddened them.
Surveys of women
working as masseuses indicated that 34 per cent of them explained
their choice of work as necessary to support poor parents, 8 per
cent to support siblings and 28 per cent to support husbands or
More than 20 per
cent said the job was well paid, but only 2 per cent said it was
easy work and only 2 per cent claimed to enjoy the work. Over a
third reported that they had been subject to violence or harassment,
most commonly from the police but also from city officials and
A survey among
workers in massage parlours and brothels in Thailand revealed that
"most of the women entered the sex industry for economic reasons."
Brothel workers were more likely to say that they became prostitutes
to earn money to support their children, while massage parlour women
were often motivated by the opportunity to earn a high income to
support their parents. Almost all of those surveyed stated that they
knew the type of work they would be doing before taking up the job.
Almost one-half of the brothel workers and one-quarter of the
massage parlour workers had previously worked in agriculture. A
further 17 per cent of the masseuses said they had previously worked
in home or cottage industries and 11 per cent had been domestic
in Thailand and elsewhere, was that in exchange for engaging in an
occupation which is disapproved of by most of society and which
carries known health risks, "the workers expected to obtain an
income greater than they could earn in other occupations." In nearly
all segments of the sex trade, that expectation was fulfilled, and
remittances from the women working in the sex industry provide many
rural families with a relatively high standard of living. The
earnings of Thai sex workers varied widely according to the sector
and the number of transactions engaged in, but surveys showed a mean
income per month of US$800 for all women, with a mean of US$1,400
for massage parlour workers and US$240 for women in brothels.
prostitution in Indonesia consistently show relatively high earnings
compared with other occupations in which women with low levels of
education are likely to find work. The personal incomes of
high-range sex workers in large cities (for example call girls
working in high-priced discos and nightclubs) can be as high as
US$2,500 per month, a level which far exceeds the earnings of
middle-level civil servants and other occupations requiring a high
level of education. Average monthly earnings in the middle range of
the sector were estimated at around US$600 monthly and US$100 at the
low end (when the exchange rate was US$1= 2,000 rupiahs).
In contrast, the
earnings and working conditions are miserably low at the bottom end
of the market: sexual transactions in cheap brothels can be as low
as $1.50 and prices on the streets of slums or alongside market
areas and railroad tracks are even lower, with comparatively higher
risks in terms of personal safety and exposure to sexually
transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS.
earnings in the sex sector are higher relative to earnings in other
types of unskilled employment. In manufacturing, for instance,
average wages per annum in 1990 were US$2,852 for skilled workers
and US$1,711 per annum for unskilled workers. In comparison, a
part-time sex worker in the cheapest of hotels who received US$4 per
client, seeing about ten clients daily and working only once a week
for about 12 hours, earned US$2,080 per annum.
One such sex
worker explained "I can earn enough to look after my two young
children. It is so difficult to get someone to look after them when
you work elsewhere. Here I only come when I need the money and it is
easy to find a babysitter for just one day." All four country
studies point out, however, that the information was gathered from
establishments and individual prostitutes willing to be surveyed.
The picture is incomplete on those establishments, especially
brothels, which virtually enslave the workers and on those women and
children who are the victims of serious exploitation and abuse.
Victims of Prostitution
stresses that whereas adults could choose sex work as an occupation,
children are invariably victims of prostitution. "Child prostitution
differs from - and should be considered a much more serious problem
than - adult prostitution." Children, in contrast to adults, "are
clearly much more vulnerable and helpless against the established
structures and vested interests in the sex sector, and much more
likely to be victims of debt bondage, trafficking, physical violence
sexual exploitation is such a serious form of violence against
children that there are lifelong and life-threatening consequences."
As with adult prostitution, it is not possible to have precise
figures on the extent of child prostitution. A 1997 report put the
number of child victims of prostitution at 75,000 in the
Philippines. In Thailand, a 1993 estimate was between 30,000 to
35,000 child prostitutes. In Indonesia, a 1992 survey found that
one-tenth of the prostitutes were below 17 years and of those who
were older, more than a fifth said they had started working before
the age of 17. In Malaysia, more than half of those "rescued" from
various sex establishments were under 18 years.
and the Feminization of Migration
the country studies encountered few, if any, women working as
prostitutes in the towns or villages where they grew up. Prostitutes
tend to be procured from rural areas or small towns for the cities
or, as young, first-time job seekers new to urban areas, are
vulnerable to being drawn into the sex sector.
The ILO report
also cites available evidence to suggest that there has been a rise
in international trafficking of women and children for the sex
sector. Underground syndicates operate "ruthlessly efficient"
networks, often with official connections, to recruit, transport,
sell women and children across national borders.
20,000-30,000 Burmese women work in the sex sector in Thailand;
nearly all are illegal immigrants at constant risk of arrest and
deportation and 50 per cent are estimated to be HIV positive. In
India, some 100,000 Nepalese women work as prostitutes, with an
additional 5,000 Nepalese trafficked to the country each year. An
estimated 200,000 women from Bangladesh have been trafficked to
Pakistan over the past decade and thousands more to India.
The report also
identifies the feminization of labour migration as one of the major
factors fuelling growth in the sex sector. It says that some 80 per
cent of the Asian female migrant workers legally entering Japan in
the 1990s were "entertainers", a common euphemism for prostitutes.
Most are from the Philippines and Thailand. Thai women work as
prostitutes throughout Asia as well as in Australia, Europe and the
prostitutes throughout south and southeast Asia are described as
almost "commuter-like" in their regularity and complexity.
What is to
says that "measures targeting the sex sector have to consider moral,
religious, health, human rights and criminal issues in addressing a
phenomenon that is mainly economic in nature." A major hurdle to the
formulation of effective policy and programme measures to deal with
prostitution has been "that policy makers have shied away from
directly dealing with prostitution as an economic sector." The
report states categorically that it is outside the purview of the
ILO to take a stand on whether countries should legalize
prostitution. While fully acknowledging the complexity of cutting
through the many ambivalent, inconsistent and contradictory
perceptions swirling around prostitution, the report does, however,
offer some recommendations on developing a policy stance.
prostitution for elimination
The ILO says
that entirely separate measures need to be envisaged for adult
prostitution versus child prostitution. Children are invariably
victims of prostitution whereas adults could choose sex work as an
occupation. "International conventions all treat child prostitution
as an unacceptable form of forced labour; the goal is its total
elimination." Success in eliminating child prostitution would also
reduce the problem of adult prostitution, since many adult
prostitutes report having entered the sex sector while they were
the variety of circumstances prevailing among prostitutes and
The ILO study
says that some prostitutes freely choose sex work, others are
pressured by poverty and dire economic circumstances, and still
others are coerced or deceived into prostitution." It points out
that some prostitutes' incomes and working conditions are very good,
while others labour under conditions akin to bondage or slavery and
suffer extreme exploitation and abuse. "For adults who freely choose
sex work, the policy concerns should focus on improving their
working conditions and social protection so as to ensure that they
are entitled to the same labour rights and benefits as other
workers. For those who have been subject to force, deception or
violence, the priority should be their rescue, rehabilitation and
reintegration into society." Focus on structures that sustain
prostitution, nor just the prostitutes themselves: "Any meaningful
approach to the sex sector cannot focus only on individual
prostitutes," says the ILO report. "An effective response requires
measures directed at the economic and social bases" of the
phenomenon. "The stark reality is that the sex sector is a big
business that is well entrenched in the national economies and the
international economy," with highly organized structures and
linkages to other types of legitimate economic activity.
"Prostitution is also deeply rooted in a double standard of morality
for men and women, as well as in a sense of gratitude or obligation
that children feel they owe their parents."
suggests that official recognition of the activity, including
maintaining records about it, would be extremely useful in
assessing, for example, the health impacts of the sector, the scope
and magnitude of labour market policies needed to deal with workers
in the sector and the possibilities for extending the taxation net
to cover many of the lucrative activities associated with it. It is
also important to recognize that policies for the promotion of
tourism, the export of female labour for overseas employment, the
promotion of rural-urban migration to provide cheap labour for
export-oriented industrialization, etc., combined with growing
income inequalities and the lack of social safety nets, could all
indirectly contribute to the growth of the sex sector.
The ILO warns
that "the health dimensions of the sex sector are too serious and
urgent to ignore." While awareness of the HIV/AIDS threat is high,
state agencies may still keep their distance from the sex sector.
"Any health programme targeting the sector cannot cover only the
prostitutes. Measures should also be directed towards clients,
especially since the chain of transmission from the sex sector to
the population involves clients who also have unprotected sex with
their spouses or others."
* The Sex Sector: The economic and social bases of prostitution in
edited by Lin Lean Lim, International Labour Office, Geneva, 1998.
35 Swiss francs
For further information, please contact ILO Publications (PUB/VENTE)