The "Can Do" Sex Worker Collective

Heavy-handed comments have been thrown around labeling Thailand as the “brothel of the world,” or “Disneyland for men.” Of course, there are no official figures as to the total number of sex workers in Thailand, but a moderate figure from Thai analysts puts the number at 15,000-22,000 women (with a very small portion consisting of men.) As such, Thailand has a very strong reputation for being a nation with a massive amount of prostitution and sex trafficking.

In the northernmost city of Chiang Mai, there are many restaurants, venues, and bars that cater to the pleasures of both tourists and locals alike. However, one bar stuck out to me among all the rest - The "Can Do" Bar, owned by a collective of empowered sex workers.

The "Can Do" Bar currently employs twenty workers, and offers an incredible amount of opportunities for women that are almost never offered in Thailand’s sex industry. These opportunities include such luxuries as:

- Payment at or above minimum wage
- 10 paid holidays, plus 13 public holidays  throughout the year
- Voluntary overtime at full pay
- Encouragement to join a worker’s association or union
 
- Paid sick leave
- Full rights to settle disputes in a labor court

The Empower Foundation is the main supporter of the "Can Do" Bar experiment. The foundation views education as a fundamental part of empowering sex workers - many of whom are receiving education for the very first time. Empower has now provided educational programs to over 30,000 sex workers in regions around Thailand. Such regions include: Patpong, Phuket, Mae Sal, and Chiang Mai - which keeps its educational center on the second floor above the bar.

During my visit, I had the opportunity to interview three of the women working that evening: Mai, Pae, and Oa. When I asked them if they had any message they wanted to convey to others around the world or to other sex workers, their replies were varied but positive.

"The ‘Can Do’ Bar is fair bar," Mae told me simply. "It’s a fun bar and is enjoyable to work here.”

Pae commented: “The bar is not open only for customers looking for sex. It is open to friends and organizers with the goal of spreading awareness."

“Sex workers can open their own bar, be their own boss and take care of themselves," Oa explained. "They can work, be artists (sex work is an art), and be safe all at the same time. Here, we live and work in good conditions. We are happy. Every bar can be like us."

Before leaving, I also had a chance to talk with Liz Hilton, a representative for the Empower Foundation.

“Empower and the ‘Can Do’ bar was born out of sex worker frustration," Hilton replied when asked for an official statement. "Over a period of time, workers voiced concerns to their government; but with no response, they decided to pool together in a collective effort to show that their jobs can be done safely and responsibly."

"We just exceeded a world population of 7 billion people," Hilton continued. "That means there have been at least 7 billion sexual acts that are not for profit. The global community does not seem to have a problem with this (fact), and regards sex as a natural, private, and personal act. That is, until money comes into the equation ... (then) governments, businesses, and fundamental feminists all feel the need to intervene."

"Women have a right to do whatever they choose with their lives," Hilton concluded, "and should be given autonomy to proceed in a positive way."

For further information, please visit the Empower Foundations/Can Do Bar's website:
http://www.empowerfoundation.org/barcando_en.html
 
Year of publication: 
2011
Author: 
Kyle Merrit Ludowitz