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During the Covid-19 pandemic, most sex workers have no income and no social security but are able to apply for the government aid scheme, says the Empower Foundation in a statement on Tuesday (12 May), which also called for the legalization of sex work and for sex workers to be able to join the social security scheme.

The Empower Foundation said that sex workers have been continuously affected by the economic decline since the end of 2019, and after places of entertainment were closed as part of government measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19, many became unemployed and have no income. The Foundation also said that 80% of sex workers are caring for their families, and proposes that it would beneficial to most sex workers if the government provided aid for every mother or everyone who has to take care of family members, without having to collect more information which could lead to the stigmatization of sex workers.

However, the statement also noted that, as sex workers are not part of the social security scheme, they have to apply to the government’s “No one left behind” Covid-19 aid scheme. The Empower Foundation said that the fact that they are able to register is an indication that “the government accepts that we are one kind of worker in society, that sex workers are the backbone of the entertainment and tourism industry and are equal to others in the workforce.”

Noting that sex workers “will be the last group of people to return to work,” the Empower Foundation stated that, while the most immediate need is money for survival, sex workers must also be part of the planning process for the future.

The Foundation called on the Ministry of Tourism and Sports to take into account the opinion of sex workers and to let them be a part of the government’s process of planning for the future direction of the tourism industry in Thailand.

“The entertainment industry or service industry must not return to treating sex workers like criminals, exploiting sex workers, and making them the target of state officials’ corruption.

"Raising clearer awareness that our work is really work will help prevent such issues. However, this has to include the participation of the Ministry of Labour and the Social Security Office in making sure that employers follow labour protection laws. The Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act, which is an obstacle, also must be repealed and replaced by a law that protect everyone’s rights. This is a good opportunity to improve the life and work of hundreds of thousands of sex workers,” said the statement.

Mai Chanta, the Empower Foundation’s sex worker representative, told BBC Thai in April that, since the order for all places of entertainment to close came suddenly, no one had time to prepare.

“They don’t have a salary,” Mai said, “which means that the money they earned the day before the closure order will be their last income until the situation improves. They can’t live like this.”

Mai also explained that more than half of the sex workers in Chiang Mai are either from an ethnic group or are migrant workers, who are not able to apply for the “No one left behind” scheme. She also said that only a small group is covered by the social security scheme.

“The government has never paid attention to or assisted sex workers. What they do very often are sting operations and raids. I would like the government to see that we are important and help us more,” Mai explained.

Empower Foundation co-founder Chantawipa Apisuk also told BBC Thai that the 5000 baht aid money is not a sustainable solution, because no one knows when the outbreak is going to end and how long it will be before the situation returns to normal.

“Acceptance is more importance than aid money,” Chantapiwa said. “State officials have to stop closing their eyes and accept that sex workers exist. They are real, and they are important to our country’s economy. Instead of doing sting operations, arresting them, fining them, and stigmatizing them, it would be better for us to just see how important their occupation is.”

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