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Thailand pushes to legalise sex work, but upcoming elections cast a shadow

Photo: Empower
Photo: Empower

BANGKOK – In a groundbreaking move, Thailand is progressing toward decriminalising sex work with the drafting of a new bill backed by sex workers and advocacy groups. The proposed legislation aims to offer labour protections, social security benefits, and workplace regulations for sex workers while tackling long standing human rights issues in the industry.

“The current Prostitution Act has been in place for 27 years; it’s outdated because our society has changed,” said Jintana Chanbamrung, director-general of the Department of Women’s Affairs and Family Development. “Most stakeholders agree that voluntary sex work should not be criminalised.”

Efforts to end the criminalisation of sex work have spanned decades, with significant momentum gained after 2016 when large-scale raids of massage parlours were conducted under the guise of anti-trafficking measures. These raids left about 400 workers jobless and uncompensated, while hundreds more were arrested and charged with “association in a place of prostitution,” according to EMPOWER, a leading advocacy group.

The draft bill seeks to legalise sex work and establish a minimum age of 18 years for providing sexual services and 20 years for buying them. “Sex service providers must be willing to do so. If anyone is forced to provide sex services against their will, it will be considered human trafficking,” said Professor Narong Jaiharn from the Faculty of Law at Thammasat University.

The bill also requires businesses employing sex workers to register for licences and ensure compliance with the law, providing safe environments for their employees. The draft legislation has been developed through extensive collaboration among various agencies, including the police and sex workers themselves.


A panel discussion about the new draft law at the Foreign Correspondent Club of Thailand on 16 March. Photo courtesy of EMPOWER.

Sex worker and EMPOWER representative Thanta Laovilwanyakul recounted the exploitation and unfair pay she and her colleagues have experienced for years due to the illegal status of their work. She expressed optimism that the new law would prevent further exploitation and ensure fair treatment for sex workers.

The draft legislation marks a monumental shift towards acknowledging sex work as legitimate work and recognising the significant role sex workers play in Thailand’s economy. 

However, the future of the proposed law remains uncertain, as it faces numerous obstacles, including public hearings and consideration by Parliament, as well as potential changes in government following the upcoming elections. 

Despite these challenges, the inclusive development of this legislation, with the active participation of sex workers, highlights the progress Thailand has achieved in addressing the rights and needs of this marginalised community.