SWING – Service Workers in Group

“We don’t need something special from other people. We need the same and equal rights as other people.”

SWING is a Thai organization working in the cities of Bangkok and Pattaya to promote and protect the health and human rights of male, transgender and female sex workers, as well as men who have sex with men. Initially focused on male and transgender sex workers, over time SWING has expanded to include support to the wider MSM community, and also to female sex workers.

Over the years that SWING has been providing services to sex workers in the area, sub-groups have been identified, such as young sex workers, new sex workers and migrant sex workers. SWING found that these sub-groups have special needs and concerns to be taken care of.

SWING is a member of the Asia Pacific Network of Service Workers, which operates at a regional level. And SWING has been supported by international donors including Global Fund, USAID and AHF (AIDS Healthcare Foundation), as well as by local government funding to provide HIV-related services, including prevention, community based HCT clinic, and care and support for people living with HIV.

What are the priority areas that SWING works in? What is SWING’s specific area of work?

There are three main components to SWING’s work:

  • outreach work focusing on prevention of HIV and STIs;
  • healthcare including testing, care and support; and,
  • working at the policy level.

Outreach work has been a core function of SWING ever since it was founded. Face to face work in bars and clubs and sex on premises venues remains part of our work, but SWING now works online too especially on CamFrog – an audio and video chat room site popular in Thailand. SWING’s outreach work has a strong emphasis on prevention of HIV and STIs, but also aims to build self- esteem and confidence among sex workers to demand respect from people who look down on them.

In terms of health, SWING runs clinics in both Bangkok and Pattaya providing counseling and testing with case managers to follow up and remind people to return for regular testing whether they are positive or negative. The clinics provide CD4 point of care facilities, so people who test positive can know their CD4 count the same day and get a checkup before starting ARV.

At the policy level, SWING are currently engaging with the Thai Government in support of the development of the latest five-year national plan on HIV; and also looking into to what to do when Global Fund money moves away from Thailand. SWING has already ceased operations in five provinces due to the end of Global Fund funding. Another big area of policy is looking at the current laws and trying to find ways to change them so that sex work is not illegal – but this is a long- term project with no success yet.

How did this organization start up?

SWING began in 2004 when I (Khun Tee) was a male sex worker who attended activities run by the famous Thai sex worker organization EMPOWER. At this time, EMPOWER focused on female sex workers as that was perceived to be the greatest need. However, Khun Sarang, who had been working with EMPOWER for over 13 years, recognized that many of the issues female sex workers had been experiencing, especially in relation to HIV, were likely to escalate among male and transgender sex workers if nothing was done to address it.

So when Khun Surang asked if I was interested in starting a new organization to focus on male and transgender sex workers I immediately said yes. So SWING was born with Surang and myself as founding members.

The first task at hand was to do a mapping exercise to estimate the number of male and TG sex workers in the known sex work areas of Bangkok, and identify the key issues sex workers faced. Having achieved this, we were able to go to donors and demonstrate not just knowledge of the extent of the sector, but our ability to reach sex workers in all these areas.

A year later, SWING set up in Pattaya too. Here, in addition to focusing on male and transgender sex workers, SWING also provided support to female sex workers in consultation with EMPOWER, an organization with many years experience in this area. SWING’s Bangkok services also expanded to support female sex workers after this.

After some time it became apparent that many of the issues affecting sex workers were also directly relevant to the wider MSM community, who often interacted and engaged in the same physical and online venues and spaces. They needed the same information on preventing HIV and STIs, and confidential and non-judgmental testing, counseling, and treatment. So SWING expanded to its current model of providing support to everyone who needs it regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

What were the biggest events or challenges SWING has worked on in the past?

One of the biggest achievements of movements by sex worker organizations is to sensitize governmental stakeholders on sex workers. This has taken many years of explaining that we are people just like anyone else, and that sex work is only one job, and there are reasons why people get into sex work.

So now at the policy level, when planning activities and budgets for sex workers they consider issues such as whether sex workers are Thai or non-Thai, and whether they are male, female, or transgender. Gender is now taken seriously at the policy level. And in general in Thailand people are more accepting of sex workers than before, they are more open.

One of our biggest challenges is definitely the law enforcement parties, especially police. It is still ambiguous in Thailand about the legality of sex workers, due to the Acts of Prostitution and of Entertainment Establishment. Such ambiguity has pushed sex workers to become ‘criminal’ and it is not uneasy for community- based organization to defend with police.

SWING’s strategy is to turn the ‘opposition’ to be ‘friends’ or ‘supporters’. We started by talking to the senior police officers, however it was too difficult to change their attitudes. So we started thinking we should work with the new generation of police. We approached the police academy and offered our NGO services for the internship program in the final year of a police cadet’s training. Each cadet must work for a community organization for three weeks before they graduate to complete their training. We hosted nine cadets each year for five years with this program.

While at SWING the police cadets had to do everything just like SWING staff and take turns in office duties and outreach work. The first few days they struggled to understand why they were there: “Sex work is illegal, but we are tasked with upholding the law, so how can we work with the illegal people?” they asked.

After that we gave them a briefing and explained that while they worked at SWING they were not police, they were SWING staff. Stop thinking about the law for one minute, and think about the people: they are human, just like you, just like other people. The only difference is that the job they do is about sex. And even then, sex is often just a small part of what sex workers do with customers. They go for dinner with customers, watch movie, serve drinks, talk and listen to customers – these are all types of service work like any other. So even though you are police you have to think about the real people and why they become sex workers.

By the end of their internship they all learned that majority of female sex workers they met were single mums, they were older, they had lower levels of education. And during those three weeks at SWING the police cadets change many of their attitudes, they understand more the life of the people – they do not just see ‘sex worker’, they see a person.

Once the internship was over, each of these 45 police cadets graduated and they now work as police officers in provinces all across Thailand. They are still friends with us and when we come across problems in other provinces they are valuable source of information and advice.

This internship program was a big success but was affected by the Thai political crisis of 2010 when the police stopped sending cadets to all the NGOs. Last year the program restarted so soon we will go and talk to them again and maybe next year we can hopefully restart this project.

What do you think will be the biggest challenges for SWING and sex workers in Thailand in the future?

A big challenge for us, like in many countries, is still the police using condoms as evidence of sex work. If they know a sex worker is carrying condoms, they will often arrest them and make them pay a “fine”: 100, 200 or 500 Baht per condom depending on the police officer (approx 3, 6, or 16 USD.) This is a “classic” problem, same as in many countries, and we have been working for over 10 years on it.

Another challenge we are facing just now is that migrant sex worker numbers have increased. People come from neighboring countries to do sex work in Thailand, sometimes for just a few months, sometimes for six months, but when they are (HIV) positive it is a big challenge to get them into care and support services due to language barriers and their access (as migrants) to services. Even when we can get them on ARV while they are here, often when they go back home we have no contact with them, and ARV may not be available to them there.

Do you have one message for the sex worker rights movement?

At SWING we do not talk so much about sex worker rights, we focus more on human rights – because we are all human. When we talk about rights, we talk about human rights. Sex work is one job; it means we choose to work for this job. What do we want most? We want to remove from the law the words that make us illegal.

Do you have one message for people outside of the movement?

If you are human, you know you are human. If someone looks at you like you are not human, then we need to fight that – because we are human. We are the same people. We are not different from other people. Don’t do something different, something special for us. We don’t need something special from other people. We need the same and equal rights as other people.