Home » Sex work/ sex workers/ sex trafficking » Walk the walk: assisting sex workers

Walk the walk: assisting sex workers

Policy interventions intended to address sex trafficking tend to be politically divisive, publically contentious, and plagued by a virtual absence of evaluation. For example: should prostitution be decriminalized, legalized and regulated, or outlawed completely? What about increasing punitive measures for those who purchase sex, or regulating sites of sex work (including anything from brothels to Craigslist)? In all countries, but particularly those that have legalized and regulated prostitution, does it make sense to delineate between “sex work” and “labor”, or even, “sex” and “labor” trafficking? What should be done about migrant sex workers? The answers to these questions subsequently influence a host of conceptual issues we face in framing worker exploitation and rights. Unfortunately, the prevailing view is that sex trafficking will be eradicated just as soon as we figure out how to eliminate prostitution. This perspective tends to dilute broader concerns about exploitation (and trafficking) and overemphasize what the law can do – ignoring myriad other complex factors that lead to policy effectiveness.

Noticeably absent from the conversation is a critical examination of frontline service provision for potentially trafficked persons.

NGOs in Singapore broadly agree on the necessity to apply a victim-centered approach for individuals who have been trafficked (with a focus on migrants), including judicial and immigration protections, legal and medical services, job and skills training, and provisions for a safe return home. Because these discussions have revolved around the introduction of the National Plan of Action, the onus is on the government to enact changes utilizing this approach. What have yet to be discussed are the standards (or lack thereof) implemented by NGOs in the course of their work. Our concerns are thus: if service providers are influenced by assumptions about sex work (particularly as a form of labor) are they able to adequately address the needs of potentially trafficked and exploited sex workers?  Moreover, how can we, as a sector, better address the needs of those individuals, even if that may include the decision to return to sex work?

In Singapore sex work is not a recognized form of labor. While prostitution itself is legal, public solicitation, pimping and maintaining a brothel are not; although special licenses are issued by the police to monitor a limited number of brothels. Prostitutes living in licensed brothels carry health cards and are required to undergo biweekly health screenings. Otherwise, illicit sex work in Singapore occurs in massage parlors, karaoke bars and spas, as well as via street solicitation and the internet. Commercial sex with anyone under 18 years of age is illegal. Pimping (of women only!) is illegal. Foreign sex workers are considered to be “prohibited immigrants”; they are not entitled to public services (including health screenings), not protected by existing labor laws and tend to be swiftly deported.

Research documenting known routes for migrant sex workers to Singapore shows us that while some individuals experience trafficking in this process, others do not. According to ECPAT, trafficking is generally experienced in two forms:

First, those who are deceived about both the type of work they will be doing (ie, not knowing they will be entering prostitution or other forms of sexual labour) and the conditions of that work. Second, those who know they will be working in prostitution and/ or other forms of sexual labour, but are deceived about the conditions associated with this work (pg. 48).

It is this latter category of trafficked women (existing research tends to concern only women) that receives very little attention, not only in Singapore, but throughout the anti-trafficking field. Both groups, in addition to deceptive forms of recruitment, have been exploited via:

the existence of a debt that bonded them to the place where they were deployed (debt bondage); being locked in their living quarters and/or being monitored or accompanied when outside of the work or accommodation space (removal of freedom of movement and association); other promised conditions associated with their employment not being met, including denial of adequate food, being charged rental on their accommodation and excessive “working” hours with inadequate break time (contract fraud); and health issues (pg 51).

In other words, anecdotal evidence and fieldwork both suggest the possibility of trafficked sex workers in Singapore, despite a noticeable silence by civil society regarding this issue.

In general, discussions about service provision for those who have been sexually exploited focus on the needs of those trafficked into the sex industry, but lack substance regarding individuals who may have been exploited or trafficking within the sex industry. No one should be trafficked within the sex industry. Just as no one should be trafficking within the construction or domestic work sectors. To be clear, we wholeheartedly believe that cases of sexual slavery and forced prostitution exist, but that sex work is not inherently human trafficking. And yes, for the moment, we are limiting the discussion to adults (but watch this space for our thoughts about minors). Consenting to sell sex does not equate to consenting to abuse and/or exploitation. Many individuals make the hard decision to enter into sex work for a variety of reasons – just as other individuals make tough decisions about other vulnerable or risky modes of employment.

So, what on earth do we do with our rescued sex workers? (Or, more optimistically, those who actively seek assistance?)

A victim-centered approach should apply to all individuals, even “un-perfect”  victims. Best practice guidelines advocate the principles of self-determination, participation, and “the right and need of victims to make their own choices and decisions, and encourage them to participate in decision-making as much as possible”. Service providers should enable a non judgmental, safe environment that offers a range of support. Moreover, risk assessments and service provision have to be tailored to an individual’s needs; both of which profoundly differ between exploited migrant sex workers and those trafficked into the sex trade.

Not only does a victim-centered approach enable personal empowerment, but direct engagement with trafficked and/or exploited sex workers can aid in informing policy. As Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, points out “a victim-centred approach to trafficking demands that we listen to [ALL] the victims and survivors of trafficking. We must use their first-hand insights to craft better and more effective responses.” [Emphasis added] As policy develops, service providers should consider including the perspective of (trafficked and non-trafficked) sex workers to develop successful anti-trafficking initiatives. For example, how might sex workers be affected by any provisions of conditionality attached to proposed victim services (ie: job placement, training, prosecution)? Are service providers equipped to develop risk assessments to prevent re-trafficking? What about cases of repatriated/deported sex workers? How can services be better linked to accommodate individual need?

Okay. So, where are these exploited sex workers and why aren’t we talking more about them, or, better yet, to them? As TTRP understands it, most organizations providing services to sex workers and/or migrants don’t see cases of trafficked or exploited sex workers and, as far as we are aware, there are no standardized procedures for care. It is plausible that as a highly transient group lacking visibility and legal recourse, migrant sex workers in Singapore may not be incentivized to seek assistance. It may also be feasible that sex workers attempt to avoid organizations they perceive to be in the business of rescue or rehabilitation. However, as the NPA develops and additional services become available, civil society should consider the impact it’s (not) having on this community, particularly those that aim to reach out to sex workers or migrants.

Exploring these issues should not be perceived as surmounting untenable obstacles for working with migrant sex workers, exploited or otherwise. Instead, they are intended in the spirit of critical discourse to provide opportunities for future outreach and strategic collaboration. In our view, the current lack of participation opens up an opportunity to engage with bigger questions regarding the ongoing development of anti-trafficking initiatives: what are the barriers to communication with underserved communities, or with each other? How can we better tailor outreach efforts and build trust? Are there existing provisions for care – how can we better share information between organizations, particularly regarding referrals in order to best tailor available resources? And, most importantly, how can we ensure that those who may experience trafficking and/or exploitation get the help they need?


  1. Vanessa says:

    Thought I’d quickly comment on the part regarding raids (from your link on “rescued” workers). In Singapore, there are 2 kinds of raids of red light districts: 1) by the anti-vice police, who usually just bring the women for health check ups, and 2) by the CID police. The CID police’s aim is simply to catch people and charge them under soliciting (and for migrants, to deport them from Singapore). I.e. At the moment, raids don’t seem to be for the purpose to seek out people affected by sex trafficking (even if some people claim that more raids are necessary to end trafficking). That said, I hope raids don’t become a tool to do so as the ladies at Empower Foundation have argued that it does more harm than justice…

    In any case, thanks for this article. There are some nuances that you managed to capture which is rare. 🙂

  2. sylvia seow says:

    Dear writer, I am doing something in this area, is it possible to write to my email as I have few questions and need some help. Thanks.

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