There are currently more than 10,000 sex workers in Hong Kong, according to Amnesty International, and non-governmental organization Ziteng (紫藤) has been promoting the decriminalization of the sex industry in the territory for more than 20 years.

Yan Yue-lian (嚴月蓮), founder of Ziteng, shared the organization’s experiences with The News Lens International and highlighted several provisions in Hong Kong’s laws that are related to the sex industry.

“Prostitution is not banned in Hong Kong when it is performed by a single person,” Yan says.

However, to prevent exploitation for sexual purposes, the Crimes Ordinance bans harbouring or procuring another person for the purpose of prostitution. “Detention for intercourse or in a vice establishment,” “keeping a vice establishment” or “letting premises for use as a vice establishment” are also banned. “Soliciting for an immoral purpose" and “signs advertising prostitution” are also prohibited.

Therefore, workers who jointly keep vice establishment or those who solicit on the roadside all violate the law and can be arrested.

Police abuse of power

It is also legal for the Hong Kong police to induce sex workers into committing a crime and later arresting them.

Yan says the Massage Establishments Ordinance is the most commonly used law when police arrest a sex worker. It states that “no massage other than face, scalp, neck, shoulder, hand, arm or foot (up to knee) massage is [should be] administered to customers.” Therefore, workers violate the law when they touch certain body parts.

However, Yan says that many police officers would wait until the entire service (often including sex) is over before arresting the workers.

“They should have told the jie-jies as soon as they touched certain body parts of a police officer,” Yan says, referring to the term ("sister") used in Mandarin to refer to female sex workers. “This is abuse of power. It is unfair for them to enjoy the services before making the arrests.”

In the past few years, Ziteng has revealed the names of the officers who have violated sex workers to the media, and Yan says that “the situation has improved.”

Ziteng visits the jie-jies who have been arrested or gone through legal trials, and the organization teaches sex workers basic legal knowledge to deal with situations if they are caught.

In January, 43-year-old police Jhu Jhih-hao (朱志豪) was sentenced to 20 months in jail for abusing his power when arresting a jie-jie. Jhu had forced a female worker to provide sexual services and left afterwards.

"No one knows the exact number of sex workers in Hong Kong right now,” Yan says.

The number could be "way beyond our imagination" due to the unknown amount of workers who operate online businesses and the huge number of illegal migrant sex workers, she says.

Casino owners in Macau and other sectors of the entertainment industry hire migrant workers from China and Southeast Asian countries illegally, but when the workers are arrested by police, the employers refuse to take any responsibility and let them face the legal system alone.

Ziteng has advocated for the decriminalization of sex over the past two decades.

“But there has been a limited effect,” says Yan, who has approached legislators on the matter. “We view is that sex work is just like any other kind of job, which should be respected. And our work will not end until the industry has been decriminalized.”

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole