In the karaoke zone in Chiang Mai, the northern capital of Thailand, the Can Do bar, sex-worker owned and operated, is open for business.
Launched in September 2006, the bar was the brainchild of partner Empower, the NGO founded in 1985 comprised of sex workers.
Carrying out sustainable business practices, the Can Do bar follows the guidelines of Thai labour and social security laws, offering their employees benefits: a combination of social security, disability and life insurance, a unique proposition in the entertainment industry. Working conditions in most Thai bars that feature women as the attraction subject their female employees to long hours with only one day off per month and stringent “drink quotas” they must reach – meaning the minimum number of drinks they have to sell to customers before they can call it a night.
However, life at the Can Do bar is different. The workers have an eight-hour day with a one-hour break for rest, as well as one day off a week. Overtime is strictly optional, and they are compensated for it. Occupational health and safety issues are upheld to standard government regulations, and there is never any question of their using the bathroom as many times in the day as they need. The employees are encouraged to form a worker’s association or union if they deem it is in their best interests. Empower has also started a community fund for Can Do, where any sex worker can contribute to the fund and become part of the collective ownership.
These details may sound like obvious components of workers’ rights, but Noi Apisuk, the Director of Empower Bangkok, assures that these fundamental policies are not common in the service industry. “We created the Can Do bar as a model for business – an “experitainment:” an experiment in entertainment. We are providing a safe and inspiring workplace environment for our workers. We want to demonstrate that even – or especially- in sex work, occupational and safety issues exist and there should be compliance with Thai labour laws. And if so, the employees and the management benefit.”
Not to mention the customers. In most other respects, the bar closely resembles others in Thailand’s karaoke or tourist-laden areas: even though the employees at the Can Do bar are self-admitted sex workers, in accordance with Thai law which prohibits earning and making a profit from (the solicitation of) prostitution, no sex is taking place on the premises. But what they do off-premises is, (ahem) their business.
As far as the controversial topic of sex work, the sex workers with whom Empower works are not among those unfortunate people who are trafficked into labour exploitation. All of the women who are associated with Empower are working in the sex industry by choice. Noi explains, “Empower provides education programs such as English and computer lessons, information on safer sex and condom use, and instruction on foreign exchange calculation. Of course we support women who choose to leave for alternative opportunities. But many women choose to stay in the industry because they like the freedom of movement,” Noi adds with a smile. By which Noi is comparing sex work to the wireless office.
Lek, one of the 40-plus members of the Can Do collective and a sex worker for six years, said that she really enjoys being a part of Can Do. Through an English translator, she says, “Here, I can practice my profession, but in a safe environment.”
The women have decorated the bar themselves, with a lot of pink colour and two poles for dancing. They’ve penned cheerful slogans on walls, and the women have written a dictionary of empowering words from A-Z on each step of the three-story establishment. “A, B, C” begins with “A Go-Go,” “Bank,” “Customer,” to “M” – “Money”, “N” – “No Money, No Honey,” to “X, Y, Z”- “X-rated,” “You Like It, Yes?,” and “Zippy.”
Looking at the bar, it is sometimes difficult to remember that Empower established the Can Do bar as a demonstration project and not as a for-profit enterprise. From a business standpoint, the main drawback to the Can Do bar is that the location is a bit off the beaten track. The women say it’s because they have to watch their budget and needed to find an area with cheap rent. In fact, if the bar raised their drink prices to meet prices at other bars, Can Do probably could afford the high-rent district, and would pull in many more customers. However, Empower members say that their focus is on entertainment for their clients, and want to keep low prices for their customers.
Just maybe, because Can Do employees have their basic needs at work looked after, they can afford to take good care of their customers. And isn’t that the whole point?