At 8pm on a Wednesday, I walk around the Sukhumvit neighbourhood in Bangkok. It is warm enough to wear a singlet and thin cotton pants. The air is thick with spices, fire and exhaust fumes. People with filthy clothes and grubby legs sleep on footpaths. Neon signs in every colour hang above the streets. Most of the buildings are dirty. As I blow my nose, out come black bits I have inhaled.
I walk among crowded foot traffic of tourists and Thais. Foot jams. I must wait for people ahead of me to move forward. No tooting but lots of touting. Vendors try to sell me fake Fendi bags and cheap watches. I buy some ‘adidas’ socks for the asking price of 20 baht (less than one Australian dollar). Next morning, in the breakfast room at my hotel, other tourists tell me, ‘It’s much cheaper in Chang Mai,’ and, ‘Only pay two-thirds of the price they ask for or you’re being ripped off.’
In Sukhumvit, I cannot avoid the sight of white sex tourists passing arm in arm with slim, pretty Thai women. Did the men bargain for the service or pay the asking price? At a place called the Down Under Bar, men watch live sport in a bar decorated with kangaroos and beer barrels. Stools and tables are set up on the front verandah. Thai women stand around the bar on their high heels talking to the men, their long black hair brushing the men’s skin. Near the front door, two Thai girls and an old white man sit on stools and lean intimately into their conversation. Farther along the street, small children beg with pleading looks and plastic cups.
Taking advantage of the fact that Western currencies buy so much in Thailand, female tourists treat themselves to massages, manicures and pedicures. In Australia, it is not cheap to have someone rub the dry skin off your feet, scrape the dirt out from under your nails, and smooth their hands over your aches and pains, but in Bangkok, such services are very cheap.
Meals are sold by street vendors who pack up their shops at night on a flat kind of wheelbarrow. Takeaway shops. Some vendors whip up omelettes; others pour hot soup into bowls filled with fresh ingredients. The soups have strong flavours of chilli, ginger, tamarind and coriander. Food is cheap. Freshly squeezed mandarin juice is only 20 cents. The Lonely Planet guidebook advises that you can eat from the street vendors because fierce competition quickly drives out those who do not provide clean, fresh food.
The competition for jobs and customers is strong. At restaurants, three or four staff wait on each table. People eke out a living in all sorts of ways. Three people often share a job that could be done by one. One man has a wooden cage of white homing pigeons. It costs 25 baht to ‘set them free’, and tourists pay to lift the wooden cage door and watch the birds fly away from the crowded Bangkok street.
Some female Western tourists take advantage of the low cost of labour by shopping at markets. Some Western male tourists enjoy a place where, no matter how ugly they are, a woman will have sex with them for a few dollars.
Of course, there are rich and beautiful parts of Bangkok. There is a tranquil sculpture garden at the Art University. Women pass in silk suits. At the Bed Supper Club, young Thais drink colourful cocktails, reclining on white cushioned daybeds. High up the steps of the Golden Mount Temple, there are views of trees, canals, modern skyscrapers and old green-and-white triangular roofs. There are bejewelled elephant statues, giant golden Buddhas, calligraphic frescoes, mosaics, tropical gardens, white palace walls and cute school kids in neat uniforms. Restaurants display large dishes of colourful curries and canals carry painted longboats. Bangkok has been called the Venice of the East.
But a lot of the city is dirt poor. In Bangkok, you can see how hard it must be for many Thais to find a job and earn a decent living. So many people. Almost no social welfare. It is easy to see the lure of the West for Thai migrant workers.
Though the desire to emigrate may be strong, in reality it is very hard for Thai migrants to obtain a work visa for Australia. As the gap between the world’s richest and poorest countries continues to grow, the desire to migrate increases. At the same time, Western governments are reducing legal migration channels and tightening borders. Australia turns away boatloads of people trying to enter its borders. Italy has plans to deport illegal immigrants to a detention centre in Libya. German border police control their borders with dogs, and many Mexicans die each year trying to cross into the United States.
As borders close to would-be immigrants, irregular migration channels are left as the only option to those who need to change countries. Travelling clandestinely, the seekers of safety and fortunes are vulnerable to exploitation by those arranging their passage. Nowhere is this exploitation more degrading than in the sex industry.
Many Thai women come to Australia on the trafficker’s promise of a work visa and a well-paid job, either in the sex industry or outside it. The women usually intend to send money home to their families. Unfortunately, many of these women are tricked into believing they will have visa rights that never eventuate and jobs that are, in reality, debt bondage arrangements, or that are in prostitution. Many Thai women end up in brothels in Australian cities. Not only must they contend with the humiliation and danger of forced or coerced prostitution, but there is also the threat of repatriation by Australian immigration officials if they are discovered, before they have had a chance to earn any money. Bought and sold from one pimp to the next, stuck in debt bondage contracts that require them to have sex with hundreds of men unpaid, these women
wake up from their Western dream to a nightmare reality.
Project Respect is an Australian NGO that aims to counter the exploitation and violence against women in the sex industry. Its documentation of cases of trafficking (available at www.projectrespect.org.au) records some of the stories of Thai women trafficked to Australia. One woman became pregnant to a client and was made to pay for her own abortion. Some were beaten. Others were rescued by brothel customers. Some of the women knew before they came to Australia that they would be made to pay back the cost of arranging their trip by working in brothels, but the number of sexual acts they were required to perform increased once they arrived in Australia. Other women did not know they would have to work in the sex industry; they came to Australia on the promise of a job in a restaurant, bar or massage parlour, only to be forced into prostitution.
The people traffickers who profit from those forced into prostitution are now the target of a 23-member task force of the Australian Federal Police. To date, however, there are no programs in Australia aimed at increasing the awareness of brothel customers that some of the women they are having sex with need help. In some countries, where prostitution is largely illegal, arresting customers, called ‘Johns’ in the US and ‘curb-crawlers’ in England, helps deter men from using prostitutes. Both the US and England have piloted diversion programs in which men attend education days to learn about the risks of prostitution to themselves and to the women they pay for. These are isolated examples. Worldwide, there is little focus on the role of brothel customers as consumers of human commodities in environments which are often extremely exploitative and dangerous.
There are trafficked women in Australian brothels. They have sex with brothel customers, sometimes against their will and sometimes in conditions of slavery. What responsibility should we place on the customers, who receive sexual services from women who may be paid even less than Bangkok wages? There are no social programs in Australia aimed at raising these men’s awareness that the women in the brothel might be trafficked and might need help. In 2003, the Australian Federal Government announced a $20 million government package to combat trafficking. Some of this money could be well spent on programs focused on sex-industry customers.
Georgina Costello is travelling in the United States and Italy researching people trafficking on a Winston Churchill Scholarship.