BANGKOK — Anna, a 33-year-old sex worker, said she had no income for the past two weeks since Pattaya’s Walking Street was told to shut down per a government’s order to contain the coronavirus outbreak. She has about 11,000 baht left.
Of those savings, 7,000 baht will have to go to rent, electricity, and water bills.
“For short time [sex service] I used to charge 2,000. That’s for one to two hours. If it’s longer than five hours, I charge 5,000,” Anna, who identified herself as a transgender, said by phone Friday. “Now there’s no short time, long time, or social media appointment at all.”
Anna is one of an estimated of 100,000 sex workers who are expected to be among the hardest hit under the business closure brought about by the coronavirus pandemic. They can’t apply for government compensation for “informal” workers either, since their work is not considered legitimate under the law, despite their ubiquitous presence around the country.
Surang Janyam, director of an NGO that assists sex workers in Bangkok and Pattaya, warned that the lockdown could prove to be a disaster for tens of thousands of people working in the sex tourism industry.
“My tears dropped on March 17. It’s not just about the dangerous pandemic but we could not prepare our hearts for what’s coming. I don’t know how they will make a living from now … and they have no welfare,” Surang from Service Workers in Group Foundation said.“I cried the day the lights at Patpong turned dark.”
In Pattaya, where an estimate 50,000 sex workers are now out of work due to the government measures to shutdown nightlife district, many have since returned to their home provinces, said Anna, who hailed from Loei province.
The sex worker said she doesn’t want to return to her home province due to the stigma attached to not just sex workers, but the perception among the rural locals that anyone returning from the cities must be infected by coronavirus.
Even in Pattaya itself, sex workers are facing additional stigma because they are thought to be possible spreader of coronavirus.
“Hair stylists, cloth vendors, and even food sellers, do not want to be near me,” Anna said.
Anna tried, but failed, to seek 5,000 baht monthly assistance promised by the government, since sex work is not listed as one of the professions in the online application form. Although prostitution can be found across Thailand, the profession remains illegal under Thai laws.
“Pattaya used to never sleep. Now it’s asleep,” she said.
Bangkok’s Soi Cowboy, a major red light district in Bangkok with 1,000 plus sex workers, also went silent after the are was shut down on March 17.
At Country Road, a large establishment that employs about 80 workers, still paid their staff for March despite no business for half a month, according to its mama san, though she doesn’t know how long they can hold out.
“We don’t know how it will be for this month,” said the supervisor, who identified herself as Maephab, 50.
The mama san said she feels sorry for sex workers, particularly freelancers who wait at dimly-lit streets of Bangkok, as there is no social safety net or protection for them whatsoever.
Maephab said some 70 percent of her staff has left for their home provinces, though Maephab – a Si Saket native – said she will stick it out here in Bangkok. She hopes things will return to normalcy by early May.
She also worries that the virus may have a long term impact on her business by discouraging future customers from interacting with the staff.
“I am concerned because customers have to sit and talk with ladies,” Maephab said, adding that she’s been self-isolating since the bar closed.
Surang from Service Workers in Group Foundation said her organization is trying to survey the number of sex workers who are left jobless and stranded in Bangkok, and see who are in most need for food and other assistance.
“Once affected, they are the first to be abandoned and the abandoned for the longest period,” she said. “This time is the hardest time for people in this profession.”