Wednesday, August 19, 1998

Elif Kaban

U.N. body urges governments to recognise sex trade

GENEVA -- The United Nations labour organisation on Wednesday urged governments to officially recognise the booming sex industry and treat it like any other business.

The International Labour Organisation, in a survey of Southeast Asia, said prostitution in the region had grown so rapidly that the sex business was now worth between two to 14 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in regional economies.

The ILO stopped short of calling for prostitution to be legalised.

But it spoke of the advantages of recognising prostitution as an economic sector for "extending the taxation net to cover many of the lucrative activities associated with it" and to formulate labour policies needed to deal with an estimated several million people working in the sex industry."

The report may be controversial to those governments and people that believe prosititution must be considered a crime.

The author of the report, Lin Lim, said the ILO wanted governments to apply labour regulations and standards for social protection "where prostitution is recognised as legal work."

"The sex sector is not recognised as an economic sector in official statistics, development plans or government budgets. (But) the revenues it generates are crucial to the livelihoods and earnings potential of millions of workers beyond the prostitutes themselves," said the report.

"The ILO suggests that the official recognition of the activity, including maintaining records about it, would be extremely useful."

The ILO reiterated its call for the elimination of child prostitution. Estimates on the number of child prostitutes, though not fully reliable, ranged from 50,000 to 70,000 in the Philippines and as many as 800,000 in Thailand, it said.

The ILO survey of the sex business in Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand found that between 0.25 percent and 1.5 percent of all women in these nations were prostitutes.

In Thailand, a 1997 government survey found 65,000 prostitutes but the ILO said the unofficial figure could be as high as 300,000. Indonesia had 140,000 to 230,000 prostitutes, Malaysia 142,000 and Philippines nearly half a million.

The sector is expanding beyond borders with many sex establishments in the Philippines found to have foreign financial backing including the international trafficking of prostitutes, the ILO survey said.

The surge in recent years in the number of women in Asia's migrant workforce -- where they now equal or outnumber male migrants -- has fuelled the growth in the sex industry, the ILO said.

Because of the shadowy nature of the sector, smugglers were increasingly trading in women. Some 80 percent of Asian female migrant workers who legally entered Japan in the 1990s were "entertainers," a euphemism for a booming sex industry, it said.

In Indonesia, the ILO estimated the financial turnover of the sex industry at up to $3.6 billion annually, including close to $100 million a year it said was generated in the capital Jakarta alone from activities related to the sale of sex.

In Thailand, ILO said urban prostitutes were transferring $300 million in net income to rural families annually. It put the annual income from prostitution at more than $20 billion.

Elsewhere, the ILO said prostitution grossed some $30 million annually in Australia while in Japan, the sex industry accounted for one percent of GDP.

Japanese men were the leading sex tourists in Asia, the report said.

The survey found that earnings from prostitution were higher than in other unskilled jobs in the middle range -- averaging $800 a month in Thailand, and more than $600 in Indonesia.

The actual number of prostitutes enslaved, trafficked or kept in prison was no more than 20 percent of the total.

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Created: September 9, 1998
Last modified: December 20, 1998

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