Occupational safety and health issues are difficult to address in many trade unions, which tend to focus in collective bargaining agreements (such as they may have); yet these issues are even more neglected when the occupation in question is informal, or even worse, illegal. In this column, we focus on the issue of occupational safety for sex workers, who, in the case of Hong Kong, operate in a narrow legal space – their occupation is not totally illegal in Hong Kong – as well as social margins. As often the case for advances in occupational safety and health (for example, it was the Kader and Zhili fires in 1993 that provoked an upsurge of occupational accident victim organizing), it was a severe tragedy and media uproar that sparked both organizing and some extent of success in advocacy. In this column, the sex workers’ organization Zi Teng shares their recent experience organizing on the issue of their safety.
Sex work context in Hong Kong
Sex is still a taboo in modern Hong Kong, let alone the buying and selling of it. Sex workers are reluctant to admit in public they are working in the sex industry. As a result, one can never obtain accurate data on the number of sex workers. However, it is true that more sex workers are now working in Hong Kong than before. The ‘business mode’ has also been changing. We not only find nightclubs, karaokes, saunas, hair salons and ‘one-woman apartments’ (where only one sex worker working in one flat), we also find some new business modes such as foot massage parlours, ‘compensated dating’ (mainly referring to young people who sell sex and solicit clients on the Internet), and beauty salons. The number of migrant sex workers, who come legally with a travel or family visa but work illegally in Hong Kong, is also on the increase. Since it is against the law to work in Hong Kong, migrant sex workers are more underground. They are eager to hide their business.
The Hong Kong government does not see sex work as a kind of work nor as a crime. Sex work is just left in a ‘gray area’. Basically, sex work is not illegal, but there are various criminal ordinances, which greatly limit the movement and activities of sex workers. Sex workers can only work on their own. The assumption behind this is that sex work itself is exploitative, and working for a third party will make sex work more exploitative. As a result, it is against the law for people to hire someone to provide sexual services. Partnership is also not acceptable. If sex workers work together, they may then be charged with
Because of the ambiguous legal status and controversial
nature of sex work, sex workers are often exposed to
police abuse, violence and crime.
‘managing/operating a vice establishment’. They cannot distribute leaflets about their service on the streets as they would be
breaking another law, of ‘soliciting for an immoral purpose’. They can hardly make commercials like other companies do, as the advertising agents they employ will be charged of ‘living on the earnings of the prostitution of others’. They have to pay more rent usually to the syndicates (gangsters), as most ordinary landlords dare not rent their flats to sex workers for fear of being charged with ‘Letting premises for use as a vice establishment’. Certainly, it is absurd for sex workers to form a union, as they are supposed to work on their own and would not be able to provide any information required by the law about their employer or boss.
Because of the ambiguous legal status of sex work, the legal restrictions explicitly imposed on the sex industry, and the controversial nature of sex work (e.g. whether it is a job, whether it is moral, etc.), sex workers are often exposed to police abuse, violence and crime. It is also not common for social groups in Hong Kong to provide support for sex workers (except for medical support). The lack of on-job support and protection thus pushes sex workers to solve their problems in their own ways. One is to work with the syndicates to safeguard their business and interests, say, paying ‘protection fees’ to ‘security guards’ to help drive bad clients away, paying adult websites for advertisements, and sometimes paying ‘professional copywriters’ to help promote their services on the Internet.
Though sex worker organizations all over the world have been advocating for the inclusion of sex workers in the labour movement, sex worker issues are seldom put on the agenda of the labour groups. Many labour groups refuse to accept sex work as work. They also often conflate sex work with sex trafficking and/or sex slavery. As a group which recognizes sex work as a kind of work, we believe that sex work itself is not exploitative, but that, similarly to other professions, external or contextual factor(s) may turn selling sex into an exploitative activity. Zi Teng is thus keen to eliminate such external factor(s). We are also eager to increase sex workers’ consciousness of labour rights and occupational safety. We strive to provide sex workers with all kinds of information and support related to their jobs. It is also one of our goals to empower sex workers, to help them to self-organize and fight for rights. However, organizational work has become more challenging as the sex worker population has been changing a lot in its composition. While local sex workers, who are born in Hong Kong, are more ready to stand up for their rights, most immigrant sex workers, who fail to find conventional jobs but enter the sex industry after coming to Hong Kong from China, lack rights consciousness. The latter group of sex workers also has more concern for their self-interest than for their collective interest. As a result, conflicts between local sex workers and immigrant sex workers often result. On one hand, our approach to the two different groups of sex workers must be a bit different. For local Hong Kong sex workers, we can directly talk in terms of rights and the need to fight for them together. However for immigrant sex workers, they are easier to approach by first talking in terms of business – i.e., what are good ways to raise or to protect their income – meanwhile also bearing in mind the chances to introduce the concept of fighting for rights. We do need to sustain and consolidate the rights consciousness of local sex workers. On the other hand, we need to introduce immigrant sex workers to concepts like rights and responsibilities and solidarity. Thus, we had spent a lot of time and effort to find out the common interests of these two groups of sex workers. But finally it was through common fear and concern for safety, that these groups became unexpectedly united.
Serial murders of sex workers
In 2008 and 2009, nine sex workers were murdered in Hong Kong. One of them was a 16-year-old girl engaged in ‘compensated dating’, who was killed by her client. He strangled her to death and later dismembered her. Much attention and concern over the safety of sex workers was aroused. We found this to be an important occasion to mobilize sex workers to fight for more social acceptance and respect from the police – and to draw attention to the insufficient laws to protect the workers. Fortunately, we gained some successes. The police finally did make some changes to their policies towards sex workers. For example, they set up a special taskforce to help sex workers, and produced television programmes and posters to warn criminals who might target sex workers. Police attitudes towards sex workers have also changed: many police officers have stopped insulting sex workers and the police now meet regularly with sex workers and sex workers groups and exchange crime information with them.
A newspaper clipping, of sex workers’ press
conference demanding greater protection
and an end to the continuing murders.
How we organize sex workers
We believe that several factors have contributed to our success so far. First, we were able to identify a common issue or common problem – that of work safety – for both local and immigrant sex workers, and built our work around that single issue. We never stopped doing advocacy work including protests, exhibitions, and signature campaigns, ‘reminding’ the public of sex workers’ human rights and basic protection, and keeping our work focused and successful. And, because of the two groups’ participation in the above events and campaigns, sex workers unite more. Their sense of belonging increases as well as their solidarity. Many of them also have started to believe that their direct participation can lead to changes.
We do not work as a union, but we encourage the workers to organize themselves. We are still in the process of setting up and supporting a kind of union – it is an association of only sex workers – although it can not be recognized as a union in Hong Kong law and the sex workers cannot reveal their employers’ information. The association and Ziteng mutually support each other.
To bring further changes, the participation of more sex workers is necessary, especially from those who have just entered the industry. Just as our efforts have led to the changes above, it will be important for them to first identify one common issue before moving forward.
Apart from continuing to negotiate with the police, we also plan to include closer work with the law-making body in Hong Kong, the Legislative Council, in our agenda. Though there often is a very long way to go to completely change the law and enforcement policies, we need to arouse the attention of legislators and remind them of sex workers’ safety and human rights. In particular, we need to help them understand the difference between forced prostitution and voluntary sex work, and the different ways to support people in each situation. On the occasion of the serial sex worker murders, we campaigned for decriminalization of all the aspects of sex work. For example, we said the government should allow two or more than two women to work together in one flat—it would greatly enhance the workers’ ability to protect themselves. But besides this, we also insisted that the government should allow the sex workers to hire any person they want, to be their bodyguard and protector. Currently, this is considered a crime, as the payment of the sex worker to the hired bodyguard means the hired person would be ‘living on the earnings of the prostitution of others’.
Zi Teng, or Acorus Calamus, is a plant with an extraordinarily tough and strong vitality. Their leaves and stems can be used for making ropes, baskets and many other household furniture. They grow and flourish, quietly and unnoticeably around houses corners, alongside with other wild grasses, and in the wind.
The selling of sex, one of the longest surviving professions in the world, has long been dismissed and discriminated against. Sex workers, with women the majority, have been deprived of their basic and rightful rights other workers in other professions are entitled to. They face the exploitation of the pimps, the sadistic torturing of the punters, not to mention the risk of all kinds of sexually transmitted diseases. They have been denied by the society at large, living a life with no dignity. Zi Teng is a non-governmental organization formed by people of different working experiences. They are social workers, labour activists, researchers specializing in women studies and church workers etc. who care and concern about the interest and basic rights of women.
We believe that even a small change can serve as great incentive. The changes we have seen as a result of our work can encourage not only sex workers to continue fighting for their rights and the respect they are entitled to. We sincerely hope that our experiences in Hong Kong can also inspire other service workers in other regions of the world.