Apr 29, 2010|
The annual Labor Day parade is approaching. The parade typically features Hong Kong workers and their local support groups and unions marching for their rights. In recent years, sex workers and their affiliated NGOs have also taken the day to come out to fight for reasonable treatment and the most basic level of recognition for what they do—for recognition that sex work is a legitimate profession.
Perhaps we should first explain a little bit more about the laws related to prostitution in Hong Kong. While it’s true that being a prostitute itself is not illegal here, there are many laws and regulations under the Crimes Ordinance that make being a prostitute very difficult, and even life-threatening. For example, there is a section called “keeping a vice establishment,” which states that a person found guilty of keeping, managing or assisting in the management of a vice establishment can be subject to 10 years imprisonment. This regulation is meant to target organized brothels but has the knock-on effect of forcing prostitutes to work alone in so-called “one-woman brothels.” It is not difficult to understand why working alone in such isolated conditions could be potentially dangerous for a female sex worker. Just last year, two men hit the headlines for killing six female prostitutes in Tai Po and Kowloon East. These crimes came as a shock to those who considered Hong Kong a fairly safe city due to its overall crime rate of only 1.1 percent per 100,000 people. Take a look at our newspapers and you will also find stories about prostitutes being assaulted and robbed almost every day.
Another troublesome regulation states that it is illegal for people to live on the earnings of the prostitution of others. Although originally intended to stop people from manipulating prostitutes and exploiting their earnings, e.g., pimps, it also means many prostitutes struggle to employ people themselves. “We cannot hire a security guard to protect us and we’re forced to work completely on our own,” says Xiu Hong, a sex worker who operates in Hung Hom. “Even hiring an amah could infringe the law. I know a washing lady who helped many jei zai [prostitutes] by laundering their towels. She was charged by the police because her income came from the earnings of prostitutes.”
And it doesn’t end there. Yet another obstructive law regarding prostitution states that while it is not illegal to be a sex worker, it is illegal to let a flat, or any other premises, for the use of prostitution. This means sex workers have little choice when it comes to finding space and are often forced to rent flats which are in a terrible condition. They are regularly exploited by their landlords. “Often the apartments are so deteriorated that no one else could bear renting them, and only people like us will tolerate it,” says Xiu Hong. “We have to renovate the place with our own money. But after it’s done, the owner will say that he wants to raise the rent, and there is nothing we can do.” Hong speaks from experience because she was once the victim of such cruel treatment. Because of her occupation, her landlord constantly harassed her, even though she was paying rent higher than the market price.
Ziteng is a support group for sex workers in Hong Kong. According to its 2006 survey, there are at least 200,000 sex workers in the city and Ziteng campaigns on their behalf to get prostitution decriminalized and to end the regulations that restrict their freedom and make their lives so difficult. “Those laws are based on the very outdated mindset that no one is willing to become a prostitute and that they are all forced to do so. That might have been true 100 years ago, but not anymore,” says Ng A-shan, a program officer at the support group. “It can just be a job now. It’s a business, and it should be regulated as such.”
One way to decriminalize prostitution would be to treat voluntary sex work as a job type, just the same as a waitress or shop assistant. A report titled “Prostitution—which stance to take?” issued by the Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men of the Council of Europe in 2007, divides modern sex-related commercial activities into three categories: “forced prostitution and trafficking in human beings,” “child prostitution,” and “voluntary adult prostitution.” In other words, not everyone in the sex business is a victim and prostitution should be respected if it is an adult’s career choice.
Hui Tak-leung is a district councilor for Yau Tsim Mong district, an area considered to have the most robust sex business in Hong Kong. He thinks many prostitution-related laws should be subject to review. “If the government thinks being a prostitute is fine, then they should be able to do their business on fair grounds,” he says. But again, he holds reservations about the clause regarding living on the earnings of prostitution because it could make it more difficult for the police to charge triad members who are acting as pimps. “From my understanding of the neighborhood, what’s really disturbing is the pimps who stand on the street and harass people for business,” he says. “But if there isn’t any explicit signage indicating the existence of a brothel, such as a nude picture on the door, then people could actually tolerate the existence of such an establishment.”
Prostitution is still something of a taboo subject in our society. Therefore, according to Ziteng, it is hard for the group to lobby for support from political parties and the wider community. All they can hope for is a more tolerant and open-minded society in the future that will understand the career choice of sex workers and respect their right to work freely and fairly.