Nestled near the night bazaar of Chiang Mai, Thailand stands Can Do bar, an establishment run entirely by sex workers. Its main attraction is not selling sex, as one might think, but sending a message to the public about creating safe places for sex workers and championing human dignity.

No single individual owns Can Do, which is likely the first, and only, bar of its kind in the world. Instead, it is collectively operated by women with the Empower Foundation, which they say is indistinguishable from the sex worker community and whose thrust has always been to safeguard women working in precarious environments.

Established in 2006, Can Do was conceived as a project to promote the rights and welfare of women in Thailand’s sex worker industry. Pingpong (real name Thantai), one of the founders, attests that their opening surprised many but was generally well-received and even visited by representatives from the Human Rights Commission, the International Labor Organization and Thailand’s labor ministry.

The venue boasts not only a good atmosphere and affordable drinks, but their second floor doubles as an art space and education area with materials tackling the situation and plight of sex workers in the country. One of the consistent messages that you encounter is the decriminalization of sex work and the subsequent recognition of their rights and welfare as part of the country’s workforce. The women at Can Do say they are not asking for more than they deserve as citizens.

When asked how they handle the profits from the bar, they say is equally distributed among all those who work there. It is unusual to see such a commercial establishment managed more like a cooperative than a business.

Their existence is, in itself, a statement that they “can do” much more and stand for something greater than the sum of their numbers.

They can – and they did

Liz Hilton, 57, an Australian activist who has worked with Empower for decades and has lived half her life in Thailand, spoke about how the example of Can Do has served to highlight existing labor malpractices.

Hilton says the same conditions that plagued sex workers in 2006 are still very apparent today. “Despite being legally recognized places of work, the labor law is not enforced in many entertainment establishments” such as bars, massage parlors and brothels, she says. “Many of them have developed their own code of employment. A lot of what they do is actually illegal.”


Credit: Michael Beltran

Pingpong (L) and Liz Hilton.

She mentions that salaries would be cut per kilogram for each kilogram that made an employee overweight under the owner’s prerogative. Tardiness and absences would also warrant owners to cut their salaries, which is illegal under labor protection laws in Thailand.

There is also mandatory drinking and a quota of how many customers must be serviced. Hazardous workplaces are also the norm. Fires have regularly resulted numerous casualties since the emergency exits were found to have been locked.

Sex workers face a stigma that is rooted in what Thai society dictates a woman should be. Like many societies. Thai women are generally still expected to refrain from “immoral activities” like sex work which bring “shame” to the family.

Hilton says roughly 80 percent of sex workers are mothers. Mothers who strive to support their families through the means available to them in what is still an economic system that deprives low-income families of their basic needs. “Most sex workers have already swept the streets, served in restaurants, sewn clothes and sold noodles,” she says. “They’ve done them all and not earned nearly enough. Sex workers want what everybody wants, a decent life for their families.”

While no single woman claims leadership over the spot, Hilton projects her own hard-earned experience in the field in the humblest of fashions, claiming that she is merely “head of drinking.” By the tone of her voice and affability with everyone, she could be mistaken for a local, to which she jests that she is already “half-Thai” acquired by her colleagues and comrades.

In contrast, Can Do’s collectivism has worked around violations of labor rights. All decisions are made through a consensus including profit-sharing, events, social security, hours and conditions of work, among others. Most of the women work other jobs as admittedly they’re profit margins aren’t the highest, hence putting your hour in at the bar serves as a form of solidarity.

Their success has become contagious as workers in other bars have started to demand social security benefits as well, according to Hilton, who says: “They told us forever that we couldn’t do it, but we ‘can do.’”

Last February, the work of the women at Can Do was recognized as a model to address human trafficking by the United Nations Convention of Women in Geneva, Switzerland.

Political force, electoral voice

The recently concluded elections in Thailand has brought its own share of questions and doubts among the people. Amid the political tumult, the women of Can Do were able to make their voices heard to electoral contenders and, by extension, their constituents.

Pingpong explained that they sent out their core demands to all political parties. They sought a repeal of the prostitution act which has been the legal basis for criminalization, proper and equal implementation of labor laws, greater welfare for all Thai workers and for migrant sex workers to be granted the same rights as domestic workers.

Four opposition political parties responded with positive feedback saying they would make the demands part of their platforms.


Credit: Michael Beltran

Political participation is nothing new for the women as Can Do has survived the changes of two coup d’états in recent history. In fact, the first coup came just five days after the bar opened in 2006. But Hilton explains that social conditions remained fundamentally unchanged in that the existing bane of policies they opposed were only cemented. “We got before it and nothing after it.”

The post-coup setup only emboldened many commercial establishments to be coerced by the police for extortion money. Five days after their opening, they had to pay the police. They refused and have continued to do so. Violence still rears its head, however, as Pingpong mentions that the “state employs economic violence the most. Men, transgender sex workers though experience a lot more physical violence.”

Like millions of Thai citizens, they too hope for a return to a democratic system. In the aftermath of the elections, with the administration ticket still maintaining most of the key positions, they say this will not be easy.

“Whichever government we face, we want to ask what their plan is for the women and mothers of Thailand? We hope its not just a ‘poor peoples’ card that we can get,” says Pingpong. They are not looking for any band aid solutions or for their poverty to simply be recognized. They want it addressed – something which they don’t see happening in the current political climate.

Beyond decriminalization

Decriminalization, says Hilton, only represents the first step in a longer process. “We would like to see no exploitation at all in any profession,” she says.

Some might say, however, that since sex workers take home more than minimum wage earners, why should they worry about their rights being upheld? This is additional malaise for their community apart from the near stifling stigma – those already struggling are reproached to justify why they struggle for more.

“The system that drives women to be dependent on cash is the capitalist system,” says Hilton. “Life is more than money.”


Credit: Michael Beltran

Pingpong adds that working in Can Do has provided a “much safer place of work with respect and dignity. Money doesn’t give you that. Also, if you don’t have labor protection, you may be dead before you spend your money.”

Their vision of social justice extends well beyond the bar and their own community as the women have consistently linked arms with other marginalized sectors. Recognizing that their fight is distinct but not certainly not separate, Pingpong explained: “We want to continue our part in building a new women’s movement in Thailand that is coming from the grassroots. To be much more connected to women in struggles for land, decent work among others to all link up.”

Aside from the work at the bar, the women of Can Do and Empower have also organized solidarity camps on the national level and workshops with neighboring countries, fostering a greater understanding among the plight of all oppressed women.

Most of them would like nothing more than to retire from the struggle. However, erasing the conditions that breed injustice doesn’t happen overnight. This does not mean they lack confidence about moving forward. “I would like to not work for Empower and close it down,” says Pingpong, “but we haven’t won yet.” Nobody thought they would last this long – and yet Can Do carries on.

Read Next: Thailand’s Pledge to Crack Down on Prostitution Sparks Concerns

Editor: Nick Aspinwall@TheNewsLens

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