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The economic crisis in Southeast Asia is a boon to one industry: sex.
According to a new report from the International Labor Organization, the sex trade there is a growth industry contributing "substantially to employment and national income in the region."

Women are both winners and losers in a business sector that is expected to experience even greater growth in Asia and perhaps throughout the world as the global economy continues its downward slide and the feminization of migration expands.

The organization, based in Geneva, Switzerland, did a study of commercial sex in Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand, where it has a major impact on the economy.

Given the sex industry's impact on the economies of these countries and the potential for exploitation of women and children, the study report is asking for greater government monitoring and regulation.

But it is not clear how this can be accomplished in what essentially is an underground economy. Nowhere is prostitution legal, and while commercial sex enriches the coffers of most of these governments, none factor it into the gross national product.

There is "no clear legal stance nor effective public policies nor programs to deal with prostitution in any of the countries," says the report, and the "sex sector is not recognized as an economic sector in official statistics, development plans or government budgets."

Despite the sex trade's shadow existence, the organization counted enough bodies engaged in the illicit trade to report that, if support staff and parts of the tourism industry are included, several million people are making a living at what in this era of AIDS can be a deadly business.

The absence of public policies, especially social welfare programs, is contributing to the explosive growth of the sex industry. While prostitution's relatively lucrative earnings attract many willing workers, the loss of jobs in the current crisis will expand the number of destitute women who go grudgingly into the brothels.

"Poverty, unemployment, failed marriages and family obligations" motivate some. Others are "single mothers with children looking for more flexible, remunerative and less-time consuming option than factory or service work."

Women can earn as much as $2,500 a month or as little as $100. They must be doing well in Thailand, where, according to the report, "$300 million is transferred annually to rural families by women working in the sex sector in urban areas, a sum that in most cases exceeds the budgets of government-funded development programs."

Noting that the survey reflects only the attitudes of prostitutes willing to talk about it, the organization says a stigma attaches to even willing participants. "More than 20 percent said the job was well paid, but only 2 percent said it was easy work and only 2 percent claimed to enjoy the work. Over a third reported that they had been subjected to violence or harassment most commonly from the police, city officials and gangsters."

Based solely on estimates, the proportion of women engaged in prostitution is small, ranging from .25 to 1.5 percent of the female population. However, those living off them are numerous. Among them, the report states, are brothel and massage parlor owners and managers, pimps and employees (even the cleaning women), workers in the related entertainment industry, security guards and hotels, restaurants and travel agencies that cater to the industry's clientele.

Whereas many women go willingly into service, "children are invariably victims of prostitution" says the organization, which calls unequivocably for elimination of the child sex trade.

The organization takes more of a free trade approach to adults.

Abuses should be eliminated and working conditions should be improved to give adult sex workers "the same rights and benefits as other workers." Those who are slaves to the trade should be rescued, rehabilitated and reintegrated into society.

Official recognition of prostitution as the big national and international business that it is "would be extremely useful" in assessing the health impact on the service providers and clients, called "too serious and urgent to ignore," and for extending the taxation net.

Such recognition might also stem the rising international trafficking of women and children for the sex sector and end the "commuter-like" flow of legal and illegal migrant women workers engaged in the "entertainment" industries in south and southeast Asia.

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