Sweatshop jobs or sex work in Cambodia: Rescue Industry fails to understand

Is buying sex a better way to help Cambodian women than buying a T-shirt? reads the subtitle of an article in Slate. I don’t think we need to generalise about all sex jobs or all jobs in clothing factories/sweatshops, but given the Rescue Industry’s obsession with getting people out of sex and into other work, it is always good to see information showing it’s not that simple. By which I mean that finding alternative jobs that are actually satisfactory to people is not easy and neither is helping them. Helping people is not only difficult but meaningless unless there is an understanding of what people want themselves.

Moral crusaders intent on saving people from sex work rarely engage with the enormous subject of what activity will provide income instead and how. The present worldwide craze assumes that any job will be better – meaning more dignified, fulfilling, heartwarming – than any sex job. Alternative occupations offered, however, are universally gender-stereotyped for women who are assumed to be traditionally feminine and domestic. Aid organisations and rescue projects relentlessly treat women in poorer countries like backward children and still call attempts to help them out of selling sex rehabilitation. The photo at the top illustrates a nearly universal association of sewing with obedient, meek women, but organised sex workers have specifically addressed the sewing-machine cliché in protests, as shown below.

It is true that a lot of people who sell sex wish they could do something else instead, the way probably most of the planet does. We fall into jobs by chance, or because someone told us they would be good for us, or because we studied some skill and then felt we had to use it even if we don’t enjoy it much. We stay in jobs because we don’t find another better one, and nowadays we are afraid to lose even the worst of jobs. Note how the concepts of precarious labour and the new precariat apply to sex work.

These excerpts from the conclusion of Ken Silverstein’s A Brief Tour of the Cambodian Sex Industry (Slate, 19 May 2011) demonstrate the problem of assuming a job making clothing is always better than sex work. Note: apparel means clothing in the US.

. . . 20 percent of Cambodian sex workers interviewed for the 2009 U.N. report said they took their jobs because of good working conditions or relatively high pay. (Fifty-five percent did so due to “difficult family circumstances.” About 3.5 percent were lured, cheated, or sold into sex work.)

Are sex workers exploited? Absolutely. But so are textile workers. When I was in Cambodia in 2009 to report on the apparel industry, I obtained the “company profile” of a firm that produced T-shirts, trousers, and skirts for companies like Aeropostale and JCPenney. It said the plant’s 1,000 workers produced 7.8 million pieces annually. Taking a rough estimate of $25 per piece retail, each employee generated approximately $195,000 in retail sales annually, for which she received about $750 in pay, factoring in typical overtime rates.

A lot of women no longer want apparel jobs,” Tola Moeun, a labor-rights activist with a group called the Community Legal Education Center, told me. “When prostitution offers a better life, our factory owners need to think about more than their profit margins.” 19 May 2011, Slate

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

12 thoughts on “Sweatshop jobs or sex work in Cambodia: Rescue Industry fails to understand

  1. Maggie McNeill

    This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately; it seems as though most of the radical feminists and “rescue” moralists honestly cannot wrap their brains around the idea that many women, myself included, simply do not feel that having sex with strangers is all that horrible. William Blake wrote, “One law for the lion and ox is oppression,” and prohibitionist attitudes remind me of that; they’re like oxen staring mutely in horror at the lionesses eating meat and repeatedly asking, “But wouldn’t you rather have this nice hay? Look, we’ll give it to you! You don’t have to eat dead bodies anymore! We’ll teach you how to graze and chew cud, and thereby rescue you from a degrading life of hunting!”

  2. Marc of Frankfurt

    “Employee generated approximately $195,000 in retail sales annually, for which she received about $750 in pay”

    This comparison is grossly problematic, since it compares the whole production, trading and marketing chain with only one step of fabrication. But it reveals a big economic problem:

    The fractional globalized production and trading process is inherently exploitive. Let with each step of reselling from raw material to complex consumer product the value double. Then this makes a geometric or exponential series and the worker or even an ‘non exploitive’ capitalist in the first stages make much lesser than in the latter. This is one problem all farmers or digger even in countries with high salary level have and China became the workbench of the West. Composing prefabricated things for the final consumer market in the last stage enables the biggest share in added value. Otherwise the capital costs of investment to finance unfinished goods are the highest.

    Sustainable post growth economcs will address those issues. They anticipate capitalism or the hegemonic monetary system on interest rate as intrinsically a pyramid or Ponzi scheme.

  3. Kris

    I calculated once that a hairdresser gets only 15% of what the client pays. That was a revelation because prostitutes usually get 33%-50% of what the client pays. If the prostitute has a manager like many Eastern European prostitutes have in the Netherlands then she has to hand over at least 50%.

    So in the end she’ll get perhaps 16%. Just like the hairdresser. Also, most hairdressers have problems in their back and arms because of overwork.

    I’m realizing more and more that perhaps not prostitution is the problem, but labour in general. Perhaps that all workers are internally oppressed because they work? Only, we need work to survive. Perhaps a solution is the consume as little as possible. And then spread all wealth equally. Then slavery will be minimised, and at the same time also overconsumption is minimised. It will be good for Mother Earth.

    And perhaps also sex is the problem. How many women feel pain during intercourse but don’t dare to speak out to their boyfriends or husbands because they are afraid they will be rejected?

  4. laura agustin Post author

    marc, yes that is a pretty misleading statement by the slate author but one knows what he means.

    kris, thanks for doing another calculation showing similarities between sex work and a another common women’s job, hairdressing. these comparisons take a lot of the heat out of the conversation.

  5. Kris

    I have to recalculate. If a hairdresser cuts one person every half hour, and that person pays 30 euros for a haircut. Then the hairdresser receives 60 euro per hour, 480 per day, 2400 euro per week, 9600 euro per month. I estimate that a hairdresser earns 1200 euro nett per month, that’s 12.5% of 9600 euro. But perhaps I’m overestimating the turnover and underestimating the salary. I didn’t take taxes into account, but that’s what many prostitutes don’t pay anyway.

  6. Waldemar Smith PhD

    Sex workers’ earnings can also be productively compared to the prices of other services in the local economy.

    William Steinwachs and I are studying and photographing bar girls in Angeles City, Philippines. Our data show that a girl can expect to pocket from a typical customer for a typical one-night barfine between 1500 and 2000 php.

    Here are the actual prices of some other services in Angeles City.

    Woman’s hot oil, shampoo and haircut, including tip 250 php
    1 week personal laundry, bedding, towels and clothes 200 php
    Consult with GP physician 400 php
    Swedish massage 1 hour 350 php
    Dental exam + fill 8 cavities 5000 php
    Jeepny fare 8 php
    Trike fare 100 – 150 php

    So a typical barfine represents significant buying power.

    The bargirls also have the opportunity to establish longer-term relationships with their customers, leading to additional earnings in the form of money, cell phones, jewelry and so on, which some men seem inclined to lay on them. Some customers are as eager to rescue these girls as the Rescue Industry is. Perhaps they have a better way of going about it.

    For their part, the bargirls are adept at eliciting these instincts in their customers. The girls can be warm and charming, and they’ve evolved a subculture of techniques and strategies, which they quickly learn when they take up the profession and willingly pass on to other girls, directed toward protecting themselves, attracting customers and maximizing their earnings.

    We’re working with over 50 girls. Before opting for bar work, all of them worked in other jobs, including jobs in the garment industry.

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