Taiwan to Legalize an Ugly Trade

From early next year, two controversial new regulations that Taiwan's Kuomintang government has been pushing through are expected to give the island's already-flourishing sex trade a serious boost.

In an effort to clean up the sex trade, the government is expected to decriminalize prostitution. Analysts say that among the Chinese "tourists" to be allowed to enter the country individually will be a flood of sex workers. A second measure allows sex workers to establish "individual studios" with three to five staff members – making hookers small businesspersons.

The measures are opposed by a wide range of women's rights groups in a "Coalition against Sexual Exploitation" who last week pronounced themselves firmly against the legalization of the sex trade. And indeed, it is an ugly situation. According to the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report for 2009, "women from China and Southeast Asian countries are trafficked to Taiwan through fraudulent marriages, deceptive employment offers and illegal smuggling for sexual exploitation and forced labor." Legal protections and oversight by authorities and enforcement efforts are described as "currently inadequate."

The Taiwanese government is thus faced with an unpleasant conundrum. It sought to outlaw prostitution only to have it flourish. For a country that has been ostensibly prohibiting prostitution for nearly two decades, the numbers of sex workers in Taiwan are astonishing. The general consensus among activists and various domestic media outlets is that some 600,000 people earn their living in the sex industry.

If those figures are correct, simple math implies that one of every 38 inhabitants is engaged in prostitution. By contrast, in the US and in Germany, the latter a country where prostitution is legal, the proportions are estimated at one of 300 and one of 200, respectively.

Part of the reason is cultural. With the evacuation of the Kuomintang to Taiwan in 1949 after it had lost the Chinese civil war, mostly single military men arrived. Most local girls who worked as prostitutes were indentured by their parents for financial reasons. As rapid industrialization in the 1960s brought young people into the cities, the easiest jobs for girls were in coffee shops where they catered to young male workers. The opening of two US Army bases did its share.

In addition, Taiwanese men marry very late. Women are afraid of losing their jobs by getting married and having children. Taiwan has been undergoing a fundamental shift in values. Two-thirds of working women are university educated, and the number of women wanting to marry has declined. The Ministry of Interior reports that the number of first-time spouses in 2009 was around 200,000, the lowest figure in 40 years.

Because prostitution has heretofore been officially illegal, no accurate statistics exist, but Taiwan's criminologists nevertheless estimate that even before Taiwan opens its doors to individual Chinese travelers, at least 200,000 sex workers are from China.

"Although big money can be made in China itself, the number of sex workers coming to Taiwan will increase because here they simply earn more money in less time," says Cheng Kun-shan, professor at the Department of Criminology of Taiwan's National Chung-Cheng University in an interview with Asia Sentinel. "Of course the relevant authorities want to find a way to prevent this, but whatever they'll do, the efficiency will be limited."

Along with warming cross-strait ties, the channels Chinese women use to enter Taiwan have constantly been evolving. Whereas women were initially smuggled into Taiwan on boats by Taiwanese snakeheads, from the 1990s on most entered through faked marriages. In 2008, the relatively China-friendly KMT regained power and opened Taiwan to Chinese traveling with group tours, professionals for the purpose of training, and for businesspeople. Now, as cross-strait ties grow, thousands of male tourists can be expected to follow the prostitutes from the mainland to the island.

Among the documentation required for these three groups, business visas apparently are the easiest to take advantage of for Chinese women who intend to work in Taiwan as sex workers. According to Taiwanese police, forged job certificates and invitations can be bought almost everywhere in China for about 30,000 yuan (US$4,500). The English-language Taipei Times quoted a Kaohsiung police officer as saying: "A lot of Chinese who don't even know how to read and write could become chief executives of some department store or real estate groups in China and come to Taiwan for 'business'."

The sex workers are not only Chinese. In what is undeniably an ugly phenomenon, according to the website Human Trafficking & Modern-day Slavery, there are some 200,000 Vietnamese women, most of them 17-and-18 year olds, many of whom end up in the sex trade, who have married Taiwanese men "of various shapes and sizes" to get into the country. Others are foreigners who take up legal employment who leave their jobs for various reasons including the promise of better wages or trickery by criminal gangs, only to end up in deplorable and inhuman working conditions, of which forced prostitution is perhaps the most widely known and condemned, according to the website.

As criminologist Cheng mentioned, the tracking influx of Chinese sex workers is a task difficult to tackle. Every measure the authorities have come up with, such as building a biometric database for Chinese nationals, including fingerprints, face recognition or iris recognition, was criticized as discriminatory and rejected by the parliament.

Also, for the prostitutes who reside legally in Taiwan, making up the other two thirds of women active in the country's sex industry, the coming year will bring about significant facilitation. Currently, if caught in the act, they can be punished by three days of detention and a fine of up to the equivalent of US$1000. The arrested, in case they are repeat offenders, are also required to attend training courses to obtain professional skills for a period of six to twelve months. However, in practice, from last year on, the law hasn't been enforced, and the prostitutes' clients were never prosecuted in the first place.

The women's rights groups have been quick to denounce the new policy as something pushed through in haste by the KMT government. The activists argue that society has yet to reach a consensus on the issue and that by making the sex trade a legitimate industry, the government is jeopardizing the rights of disadvantaged women by exposing them to the control of crime syndicates.

The government ironically deploys strikingly similar arguments to press exactly in the opposite direction. According to government spokesmen, the existing rules are being revised to eradicate sexual discrimination and protect workers' rights.

Apart from these goals, of the estimated US$2 billion that the sex trade creates in annual revenue, about US$700 million is projected to go into national coffers after decriminalization.

But arguably the proponents' most bizarre argument is that making prostitutes register with the Council of Labor Affairs, would cut Taiwan's jobless rate.

On Oct. 18, several Kuomintang lawmakers including Hou Tsai-fong and Wu Yu-sheng said Taiwan's jobless rate would decline if the sex trade is legalized and decriminalized. However, Minister Jennifer Wang of the Council of Labor Affairs said the nation's unemployment rate would barely decline even if the sex trade is decriminalized, although sex workers would be allowed to form unions.

To criminologist Cheng, Taiwan opening its borders to individually traveling Chinese tourists is bound to lead to a variety of problems. In his eyes, it's impossible to estimate how many will take advantage of the relaxation of cross-strait travel regulations. "Only the statistics will show afterwards," Cheng said.