Having the right to a career path like anyone else seems a small thing to ask. In Phnom Penh, however, transgender sex worker Sam Sela, from Women’s Network for Unity (WNU), the 6,400-member sex workers’ union in Cambodia, has been rejected for jobs even in low-wage restaurants and garment factories.
Being instantly recognizable as transgender means she is denied work even in this “live and let live” Buddhist society advertised in tourist brochures as gay- and lesbian-friendly. Sela explains, “I joined the WNU union because I faced so much discrimination from my family, friends and society that I could not get regular work.”
As well as transgender and male sex workers, WNU is made up of women who work in hostess bars, karaoke clubs or massage parlours and do freelance sex work. The union has 5,000 members in the capital Phnom Penh and another 1,400 throughout the country.
In Cambodia, the 2008 Law on Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation and the severe stigma attached to doing adult sex work make it almost impossible for sex workers to access justice, healthcare and social security systems. In response, WNU advocates for legal and human rights, as well as safer working conditions, including condom use.
Above all, WNU aims to amend Cambodia’s anti-human-trafficking laws and have the government support their right to work. The WNU slogan, Sex Work Is Work, demands that sex workers be taken seriously as people having an occupation and that a distinction be made between human trafficking and voluntary, adult sex work.
They are particularly troubled by some police arrests under the “rescuing and raids” program. Ly Pisey, WNU assistant, explains, “Guidelines from the Ministry of the Interior define all sex workers as victims, ensuring the police arrest everyone during raids, not just children and sex slaves locked in brothels. But we are not all victims.
“Also, the law targets every activity involved with sex work, such as soliciting in public and procurement. These activities allow us to perform our work — yet everything has been made illegal.
“Worst is the contradiction between the trafficking law and Cambodian government HIV programs,” says Pisey. “Anti-trafficking police seize condoms as evidence during raids to crack down on sex workers. Sometimes they have to swallow condoms to avoid arrest. Sex workers are now afraid to possess condoms. This goes against HIV-prevention advice and endangers our health.”
Sela speaks in her capacity as a WNU organizer. She has been twice elected to the position. “At WNU, we are adult sex workers over the age of 18. No one is forcing us. We aren’t victims. We don’t have pimps. Poverty and debt make most of us enter sex work.”
She places a hand over her heart and her eyes melt. “I love my gay boys.”
Speaking in the WNU offices in northeast Phnom Penh, Sela adds that tricks with local Khmer men bring under $1.50 CND. Cambodian brothels, unlike in nearby Thailand, are set up for locals, not tourists. Many are dirty and uncomfortable. Clean toilets, showers, fresh sheets and towels are rare. Freelance sex workers earn $5-10 a night, enough to support a family.
Around the world, legitimizing the selling of sex is as inflammatory an issue as abortion rights, and just as sharply divisive. Abolitionist feminists, characterized as coming from wealthy countries, want to abolish the sex industry and free all sex workers, who they see as victims in need of rescue. In an opposing stance that Pisey says is fairly new to Cambodia, WNU members are demanding the right to work like everyone else and want the police to stop brothel raids that oppress them in the name of “rescue.”
After a government pronouncement that sex workers are an affront to traditional Cambodian culture, WNU members joined with garment workers and their children to hold a Buddhist ceremony known as Bun Phka, where a group raises funds for a temple and other good works — a demonstration that sex workers respect tradition and religion the same as the rest of society. In a public march, they carried a banner reading, “We are your partners in poverty reduction.”
Another WNU official, Keo Tha, an erotic massage sex worker, commented, “Cambodia is a poor country. Poverty is the root of this complicated situation. We don’t have many options. People are slow to accept that sex work is work. We get no respect and become doubly vulnerable on top of our poverty.”
As graceful as an Apsara temple dancer, Sela straightens her already elegant posture and points out that transgender people have many talents that Cambodian society is not ready to acknowledge. “As well as working as an activist leader, I can do fashion design, sing, give dance performances, and I know a lot about cosmetics. People reject transgender people like me, yet I have a lot to offer.
“Like all WNU members, we’d like to be respected as legitimate workers and also have access the same opportunities open to everyone, such as working in offices, shops and major companies.”
Adult sex workers at WNU want to be recognized as human beings who are making choices about their lives. They want rights other workers enjoy, such as access to healthcare, job training and education.
To avoid being marginalized as radicals, WNU is careful to align itself with other social justice groups and cooperate with rather than criticize the Cambodian government. The strategy is working. “For the past two years we’ve been working closely with government officials, and now we face less police violence,” says Pisey. “When we’re arrested, we experience less robbery of our property, less rape and fewer beatings. But we still need space to work safely.”
The best way to fix problems of violence and poverty is to stand in solidarity with sex workers as they fight to transform the industry. For WNU members, sex work is a labour rights issue and sex workers’ rights are human rights.
Seeking support from workers around the world, Sela and Pisey ask that overseas readers send their names and addresses with a message from their own countries — We support WNU sex workers in Cambodia — by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Poverty at root of most sex work
In the sex workers’ union office in Phnom Penh, a banner pinned to the wall reads, “Don’t talk to me about sewing machines. Talk to me about workers’ rights.”
Cambodia’s anti-human-trafficking law has given rise to police raids on brothels where sex workers are “rescued” and retrained for jobs in low-wage garment factories. Workers get minimal instruction to operate sewing machines and usually receive no wages during the two- or three-month training period.
Women’s Network for Unity (WNU) assistant Ly Pisey points out, “When you finish your sewing training, you have no real profession and no marketing knowledge. People need skills to run their own businesses, like financial management and how to track profit and loss.”
There are about 350,000 workers in Cambodian garment factories, and 80 percent are women. The garment industry is the country’s largest employment sector, but workers earn just $61 minimum wage a month and face dangerous working conditions.
“You can never earn enough to support yourself, let alone a child or family,” Pisey says.
And there is often an ugly truth behind the “rescue industry” largely funded by international aid. “International donors criticize our government for corruption and human rights violations, but Cambodian sex workers also ask that donors demand accountability that their programs don’t harm human beings like us. The law and the rescues and raids program lead to abuse.
“We all hate human trafficking, especially when children are affected. However, rescuing consenting adult sex workers and sending them to sew is not economic empowerment.” Pisey adds that “rescue industry” organizations get millions of dollars to set up programs without listening to what sex workers say they need.
“Ignoring women’s, gay and transgender voices is another form of violence. Well-meaning policies implemented without consultation with sex workers can also do harm.”