Vietnam’s sex industry and the sticky subject of legalizing it

Vietnam's sex industry and the sticky subject of legalizing it

A sex worker looks for customers at a public park in downtown Hanoi, as shown in a file photo by AFP.

‘Sex workers should have the right to make a living, contribute to society, and enjoy welfare in terms of healthcare and education.’

Vietnamese officials have expressed their concerns about the complicated nature of recognizing prostitution as a job.

Despite being illegal in Vietnam, prostitutes can still be found all over the country’s biggest cities, and the rackets controlling them have come up with countless ways to dodge the law with authorities seemingly helpless to stop the industry’s unchecked development.

Data may vary, but figures from the International Labor Organization (ILO) suggest that there are nearly 101,300 sex workers, including 72,000 women, in Vietnam.

“We must recognize that prostitution is an existing issue in our society. Sex workers should have the right to make a living, contribute to society, and enjoy welfare in terms of healthcare and education,” said Cao Van Thanh, vice head of the Social Evil Prevention Department under the labor ministry at a recent meeting in Hanoi.

A new law on prostitution is necessary to help ensure social security, he said, adding that the law should focus on ensuring sex workers’ access to social security.

Echoing Thanh, Tran Van Dat, vice head of the Department of General Affairs on Legislative Development under the Ministry of Justice, said prostitution should be considered a legitimate profession. “The state should legalize prostitution and allow sex workers to operate in certain areas to manage the industry and minimize the transmission of sexual diseases,” he said.

An ILO study in 2016 said sex workers were some of the most vulnerable people in Vietnam as they have to deal with regular police raids and persistent fear of theft and violence.

A full-time worker usually works 10 to 12 hours each day, and women provide services to between six to 10 clients on average, but sometimes up to 30 per day. Male workers serve between three and 10 clients each day, a workload considered “heavy” by many pimps interviewed by the ILO.

Legislators should start working on the law in 2019 and it should and come into effect in 2021, Dat said.

Agreeing with the legalization of prostitution, Nguyen Xuan Lap, head of the Social Evil Prevention Department, said local authorities are collecting opinions on establishing regulated red-light districts in certain special economic zones.

However, it is very difficult to recognize prostitution as a profession, he said.

“Under the law on vocational education, local authorities would have to build standards for the profession, including a vocational training curriculum and salary levels for workers,” Lap said. “It is very complicated.”

But others have expressed reservations. Tran Chi Dung, the director of the Kien Giang Province’s tourism department, said: “This is a sensitive matter.” Vietnam is planning three special economic zones including one in Kien Giang’s resort island Phu Quoc.

Gambling and prostitution have long been considered forbidden vices in Vietnam, but the government has adopted a more lax attitude towards them in recent years.

In 2013, Vietnam abolished compulsory rehabilitation for sex workers in favor of fines no higher than $100.

Some 70 countries in the world have legalized prostitution outright, including Australia and Germany. According to a report by the United Nations Development Program, sex work has been decriminalized in many Southeast Asian countries as police turn their focus on arresting pimps and brothel owners instead of the prostitutes themselves.

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