Empower, which stands for "Education Means Protection of Women Engaged in Recreation", is a non-profit organization with centers in Bangkok's Patpong red light district, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Mae Sai and Patong Beach in Phuket.
It provides women involved in Thailand's illegal sex trade with free English classes and advice on health, law, education and counseling. It also lobbies the government to extend employment rights and benefits to sex workers and to legalize prostitution.
Founding director Khun Chantawipa 'Noi' Apisuk talks to CNNGo about the need to recognize sex workers as contributors to the economy, while sharing her controversial views on the trafficking of women.
'We never call ourselves bar girls'
Describing the organization's beginnings, Noi says they started out as a small group of women, both activists and sex workers, sharing language skills and life experiences together.
"We didn't plan to evolve into a foundation; initially we just wanted to learn from each other and support each other."
Unlike most Thai organizations operating in this field, Empower takes a neutral stance towards sex work and does not pressure people to leave the trade.
"It's frustrating to keep repeating ourselves for over 25 years that sex work is work," she says. "Sex workers are workers who must be given the same benefits and protections as other workers and equal respect and space in society.
"We never call ourselves 'bar girls'," says Noi, adding that they don't dub themselves "prostitutes" either, as that word carries an old-fashioned stigma. Noi says that 50,000 sex workers have joined Empower over the last 25 years, though the group does not aim to help in the traditional sense that a charity or welfare organization might.
"Empower is a space where sex workers can promote our human rights, including advocating change in government policy. It is largely run and managed by sex workers for sex workers, providing access to basic rights like education, health and community belonging."
Contributing to the economy
Pointing out the importance of Thailand's sex trade, Noi says that sex workers are often the head of the family, supporting five to eight other adults.
"Much of the tourist industry is dependent on sex workers and it makes up around 7 percent of the GDP -- more than rice exports," she says. "The International Labour Organisation found sex workers send home US$300 million a year to rural areas, which is more than any government development project."
Noi says that most of Thailand's sex workers work in entertainment venues serving drinks, dancing, singing, playing snooker, massaging or chatting with customers.
"None of these activities are illegal and the places themselves can be legally registered. Sex workers need the work we do recognized as work so the Thai labor law and social security act, along with occupational health and safety codes, can be applied to our workplaces. This would give sex workers the same protections and benefits that other workers enjoy."
Still waiting for concrete change
"We have had maybe 10 governments since we began. We have worked closely with some addressing social problems like HIV or child abuse; others have used sex workers as scapegoats or happily used sex worker earnings to build the economy. Many are our good customers," she notes, adding that Empower has been recognized by the Department of Non Formal Education and the Department of Public Health, and has worked together with the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Art and Culture and the Ministry of Human Resources and Development.
Nui says Empower is still waiting for a sincere government that will make concrete changes to policy and law enforcement to improve the lives of sex workers. Meanwhile, she says many anti-trafficking organizations fail to recognize the important difference between migrant sex workers and women forced to prostitute themselves against their will.
"In my opinion, many raid-and-rescue operations and the following arrests and stigmatization only worsen the situation of sex workers," she says. "Our bar, Can Do, is a model for exemplary working conditions in the industry. Workers have a day off each week and we provide social security benefits, proving a safe, fair work place is possible