Helping sex workers, fighting sex trafficking
In 2 separate Roundtable Discussions, experts shared their experiences of combating the prejudice and exploitation that plague the world’s oldest profession.
With all the cultural baggage that surrounds sex work, it can be hard for many people to focus on the ‘work’ part of sex work. But sex workers, like any other wage-earner, also grapple with decisions and concerns about their job-related welfare.
This was the approach social worker Wong Yoke Leng took when she spoke about sex workers in Geylang during AWARE’s August 18 Roundtable Discussion.
Wong works for Project X, which was started in 2008 to improve the welfare of sex workers. Its volunteers work the ground at Geylang to provide assistance to sex workers in need of aid such as subsidies for medical care.
When asked by an audience member during the Roundtable Discussion whether there were any rehabilitation initiatives “to help sex workers return to society”, Wong replied that while such schemes were lacking, “it is also an issue of perseverance and determination – making a career switch would be very, very challenging. I myself have been a social worker for many years and I can’t imagine going into sales”.
She recognised that this sort of empathy with sex workers was rare in most cultures, and that changing mindsets in Singapore will require a great deal more advocacy work.
“We always associate this job with a lack of dignity and morality,” she said. “Once, I tried working with businesses to help give sex workers jobs, but the employers were quite prejudiced and asked me, ‘Do they steal?’ But they’re friends to me, my mentors even, so I don’t see it that way.”
In addition to cultural prejudices, many non-governmental organisations in Singapore also tend to focus on sex workers as victims of sex trafficking.
While acknowledging that trafficking and coercion was a serious problem, Wong pointed out that many of the sex workers she worked with had entered the profession willingly. In any case, “our role at Project X is not to rescue them but to facilitate their needs, such as accompanying them to the Ministry of Manpower or to the clinic if they need to go there”, she said.
Other problems sex workers encounter in Singapore include:
- Verbal and sexual harassment by members of the public, and the discriminatory attitudes of medical professionals who staff drop-in centres for sex workers.
- Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are common for sex workers in Geylang, as there are few toilets in the area and many do not want to miss out on potential customers by taking bathroom breaks. “This is, in some aspects, worse than STIs because a lot of those can be treated with antibiotics, whereas UTIs lead to daily discomfort,” said Wong.
- Foreigners who work as sex workers in Singapore may have entered the country on social visit passes or may not have possession of their passports (which are often retained by their pimps). As such, if they are robbed or raped during their stay here, many are afraid to make police reports for fear of being jailed and deported for taking part in sex work. They also have to raise their own money for airfare if they are deported.
The pressing problem of dealing with sex trafficking was then addressed in a separate Roundtable Discussion on August 31.
The speakers were: Noorashikin Abdul Rahman, vice-president of migrant worker rights advocacy group TWC2; and Mark Goh, chairperson of the Archdiocesan Commission For The Pastoral Care Of Migrants And Itinerant People (ACMI).
Goh, a criminal lawyer, pointed out that as the burden of proof in sex trafficking cases lies with the trafficked person, such cases are hard for prosecutors to win because the victim rarely has evidence such as receipts that can definitively prove that she has been coerced or deceived into taking part in sex work.
Because of the evidential burden of mounting a sex trafficking case, prosecutors tend to focus on smaller offences committed by traffickers so they can win their cases. These offences can include forging passports or violating work passes.
This strategy has worrying implications for combating sex trafficking in Singapore. Besides the fact that traffickers get away with lighter sentences, authorities can also point to the low number of official sex trafficking cases as proof that the problem is negligible in Singapore.
Noorashikin pointed out, however, that various research reports have shown that Singapore is a destination for trafficked women brought in from the Philippines, Indonesia, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia.
That Singapore is a destination rather than a recruitment ground for trafficking is one of the reasons why the government is reluctant to sign regional anti-trafficking treaties.
Said Goh: “The sequencing of trafficking is recruitment, the act itself, and going home. Singapore is in between. If I sign the treaty, what assurance do I have that the other signatory countries will make sure they keep the other parts of the bargain? You can have a lot of laws, but are they enforced? It makes no sense to sign a protocol when your partners are not going to enforce it.”
The pro-business environment in Singapore also means that laws here tend to be biased against victims of sex trafficking.
Noorashikin pointed out, for example, that there are not enough background checks on ‘phantom’ employers applying for work passes that are actually meant for victims of sex trafficking.
“Essentially, trafficking is about exploitation – it benefits businesses and citizens,” she said. “Sex trafficking in Geylang is about providing an outlet. There are 700,000 male migrant workers here with no access to their partners back home, and who not allowed to get married while they are here. Sex workers service this group. Even the British did that in colonial days. The sex work industry also contributes to a more vibrant nightlife, although it is not advertised in official tourism brochures.”
In stark contrast, victims typically have no access to a source of income when they try to mount expensive private prosecution cases against their traffickers, as they are not allowed to work. The victim and the trafficker may even be held in the same location, allowing ample opportunities for intimidation.
In the United States, the government provides victims with not just shelter, but also healthcare, and sometimes even citizenship, said Noorashikin. They can also get monetary compensation, with the money coming from fines collected from prosecuted traffickers.
Such measures may seem far-fetched for Singapore at the moment. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t advocate for them,” said Noorashikin.
Find out more about AWARE’s monthly Roundtable Discussions here.