Slate: Is buying sex a better way to help Cambodian women than buying a T-shirt?
A woman prostitute, center, smokes a cigarette in a street of a shantytown in Phnom Penh on June 10, 2008.
"Is this a good job?"
That had to rank as one of dumbest questions in the history of modern journalism. I'd put it to a young woman who'd just served me a drink at Zanzibar, a hostess bar in Phnom Penh whose "staff of beautiful ladies … are always on hand to serve and satisfy your every
desire." Hostesses are paid to be flirty and solicitous, but I had clearly tried this
"You know that this is not a good job," she said, with a smirk that revealed her irritation.
But in Cambodia, where the regime of former Communist Hun Sen oversees a particularly vicious form of crony capitalism, economic options are severely limited and 40 percent of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day. For young women, work in the sex industry—which includes hostess bars, karaoke bars, massage parlors, and freelance prostitution—is one of the few alternatives to work in the apparel industry, which produces 90 percent of the country's export earnings. Many women find it a preferable, if distasteful, alternative.
The sex and apparel sectors draw from the same labor pool: young, poorly educated women from the impoverished countryside who send part of their earnings home to support their families. Almost all of the country's 350,000 apparel workers are women. Estimates of sex-industry workers range from about 20,000 to 100,000; the lower number is probably far closer to the truth as the latter comes from the hyperbolic, fundraising-driven claims of anti-trafficking organizations, which seem to assume that almost every sex worker is a "slave." A more likely estimate of the percentage of trafficked prostitutes is 10 percent.
There's a steady flow of workers between the two sectors: A 2009 U.N. Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking report found that in the aftermath of the steep global economic downturn, up to 20 percent of laid-off apparel workers found work in the "entertainment sector."
Apparel factories began sprouting up in Phnom Penh in the mid-1990s after Cambodia signed a bilateral trade deal with the United States that gave it privileged access to American markets if local factories upheld enhanced labor standards. Walmart, Nike, Target, and other major retailers soon began sourcing from Cambodia, and the country gained a reputation, in the words of USA Today, as "the sweatshop-free producer in a fiercely competitive global clothing market."
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof buffed this image, writing in a 2008 piece from Phnom Penh that, "a job in a sweatshop is a cherished dream, an escalator out of poverty." Earlier, Kristof bought the "freedom" of two prostitutes/"slaves" and sent them home to their villages. One soon returned to her old line of work. In a 2009 column, Kristof called on the Cambodian government to "organize sting operations" against brothels, though in practice such raids have resulted in women being beaten or raped by police and sent to "rehabilitation centers" that Human Rights Watch describes as "squalid jails," including Koh Kor, a former Khmer Rouge detention facility.
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