HIV prevention

Viet Nam: Poor working conditions prevalent in sex work

A new ILO study shows that most sex workers entered the job voluntarily but had limited control of occupational safety and health implications.

News | 16 September 2016
HANOI (ILO News) – Most sex workers have entered the industry on a voluntary basis but face poor workplace conditions with occupational safety and health implications, a new ILO study has shown.

Launched at the policy workshop “Harm Reduction in Prostitution – Safety, Health and Human Rights Protection” in Hanoi on 16 September, the qualitative research was drawn up from in-depth interviews with male, female and transgender sex workers, pimps and local authorities in Viet Nam.

Of the 73 workers surveyed, only one reported to have been deceived into selling sex. However, many venue-based workers had their movements controlled by employers and some had their identity papers held.

“The main motivation for them to enter the sex industry was their increasing burden of financial responsibility and many of them had done other informal jobs before deciding that sex work was better among other options available to them at that time,” said Pham Thi Thanh Huyen, National Co-ordinator of ILO project on improving working conditions of entertainment workers as a means to strengthen HIV prevention, care and treatment programmes in Viet Nam.

There was a wide variety in the quality of the physical conditions of the workplaces where sex was negotiated and sold. At one end of the spectrum were public spaces, brothels, cheap cafés, restaurants, karaoke bars, and massage parlours – usually frequented by low-wage labourers and local residents. At the opposite end were well maintained, expensive dance bars, discotheques, spas, massage parlours and restaurants, which were usually frequented by a higher paying clientele.

Cheaper venues had the poorest facilities, with workers complaining of dirty, cramped, poorly ventilated spaces and with no rest places. They also expressed concern about their security and safety. Street-based workers felt unsafe, raising concerns about heavy road traffic and air pollution, as well as the high risk associated with working in public spaces alongside drug dealers, regular police raids, and persistent fears of theft and violence.

While enjoying more flexible work hours, which frees them to fulfil other responsibilities, full-time prostitutes regularly worked long hours – between 10 and 12 hours each day. According to the study, venue-based workers had the most clients on a daily basis. Women provided sexual services to between 6 to 10 clients on average and up to 30 per day during busy periods whereas men served between 3 and 10 clients each day. In comparison, street-based workers had on average 5 or fewer clients per day. Many pimps interviewed in the research said that this workload was heavy.

Violence and the fear of it was reported in all work place settings and by almost all sex workers; with street-based work being the highest risk workplace and female workers being the most likely to experience violence.

Poor workplace conditions, long working hours, heavy workload, and violence had implications in occupational safety and health issues. In addition to health-related problems regularly reported to link with sex work, including HIV, sexual transmittable diseases and drug use, sex workers were also prone to many other factors adversely affecting their health.

“Many sex workers suffered from stress and mental issues because they do not enjoy their job,” said Huyen. “Many were also forced by employers, clients or themselves to drink a lot of alcohol, which resulted in permanent stomach ache. Others suffered from tremor symptoms due to too much sex or injuries due to gang rapes.”

Condoms were provided by many employers as HIV was the biggest health risk for workers and also a damage to their reputation and business. However, consistent condom use was low.

As much of the sex industry is associated with the entertainment industry, many recommendations made by the study also targeted the entertainment industry in general.

“We need to make sure that employers of entertainment business venues comply with the laws to protect safety and health and to fulfil labour rights of their employees,” said ILO Viet Nam Director Chang-Hee Lee. “The role of health and labour inspectors at the local level is important. They should be sensitized and trained on this topic, and in their inspection plans, safety and health and labour rights of workers working in entertainment business venues should be included.”

The latest estimates indicate that there are nearly 101,300 sex workers, including 72,000 female sex workers in Viet Nam.