Taiwanese Sex Workers Protest for Decriminalisation

On the 18 of October, COSWAS, sex workers and allies held a protest outside the Taipei City Government. Protesters asked for the decriminalisation of sex work, for an end to illegal entrapment practices targeting sex workers, and for the government to stop ignoring sex workers. They are asking for safe and legal places to work.

protesters hold banners and a large fake knife and fork
“Mayor Ko” is holding fork and knife: The ‘Social Order Maintenance Act’ which penalizes sex workers and clients, and the ‘Child and Youth Sexual Exploitation Prevention Act’ which criminalizes suggestive advertising. The two laws are used to make it harder for poor working women to sustain themselves and families under great pressure.

One week ago, Taiwan Supreme Court Judge announced his support of the decriminalisation of sex work and the establishment of zones allowing sex work in Taipei. After the announcement, activists met outside Taipei City Government to demand the Mayor announce his position. Tsai Ting-sheng, Speaking as Secretary for Taipei City Administrative Department, said the opinions of protesters would be brought back for “further deliberation.” However, sex workers say this issue has been continuously dismissed and treated with contempt by governments.

In 2011, an amendment to the Social Order and Maintenance Act gave local governments powers to designate special sex trade zones for consenting adults. However, all 22 county and city mayors have spoken against fencing off a sex zone in their district on fears of a surge in crime rates and a plunge in real estate values according to reports.

Under this policy, both sex workers and their clients are subject to fines ranging from NT$1,500 (USD 50) to NT$30,000 (USD 950) for engaging in paid sex outside the permissible vicinity. Before these newer laws were introduced, only the sex workers themselves had been penalised.

“Penalizing sex workers drives the industry deeper underground, and only decriminalisation can ensure the proper regulation and management of the industry,” Hsu said in response to lawmakers’ questions at the Supreme Court last week.

Despite the change of legislation in 2011, lawmakers and city governments have both avoided the issue. In the meantime, failure to address the issue has left sex workers enduring a lack of safe and legal places to work.

This most recent protest follows several earlier protests by COSWAS, who have highlighted this issue on an ongoing basis.

Activists argue that Taipei should be a model for local governments nationwide, according to reports by China Times.

(translation of text)
“Mayor Ko don’t back off! Give street walkers safe and legal place to work!” Protestor holds a sign during COSWAS sex workers and allies protest in Taipei.

Kuo Pei-yu, Secretary of COSWAS asked at last week’s rally, “Why can’t the government allow [sex workers] to do what they do best under a safe and legal environment?” She added that, “despite sex workers filling gaps in the city government’s social welfare system by taking care of special needs children or family members through their work,” sex workers are still being discriminated against and targeted for unjust fines by the city government.

Kuo explained how the Taipei mayor was giving the police and city government free rein to treat sex workers like “ATM machines” by having undercover officers pose as clients and entrap sex workers. Sex workers are asked to pay large fines by police officers who entrap them. She said this strategy was illegal as it induced people to commit crimes. The fines from such charges can be up to $1 million Taiwanese Dollars (approximately 31,000 USD).

Another sex worker, Hsiao Yu (小玉) added that the government’s actions have made life for sex workers very hard, with the fines stretching beyond the financial means of most sex workers.

COSWAS urged Mayor Ko to lead a review within the police department regarding their employment of illegal means to arrest sex workers. They hope to see Mayor Ko collaborate with sex workers to commence city-wide dialogue in a move to decriminalise sex work.