Taiwanese Sex Workers amid the Covid-19 Pandemic

Written by Mei-Hua Chen.

Image credit: Until next week by Steve Leggat/Flickr, license CC BY-NC 2.0

Taiwan is considered one of the rare countries that is successfully containing the spread of Covid-19. Mass media across the globe surprisingly reported that Taiwan’s schools, shops, restaurants and factories still operate as normal. Taiwan’s economy, however, is devastated by Covid-19, particularly the service sector. Many businesses, ranging from street vendors, small-and-medium enterprises to five-star hotels, either have temporarily closed or cut down employees’ salaries. Some have even lay off workers for survival. Thereby, many workers lose income or jobs to Covid-19 based on employers’ decisions. The newly issued government statistics show that the unemployment rate of this March has increased by 0.02% and thus reaches 3.72%  overall. There are nearly 9,000 people who have lost their jobs. The majority of these workers are found in the service sector. Nonetheless, after a hostess, who worked in Taipei, contracted the Coronavirus on the April 8, hostesses or sex workers who work in bars or dancing halls appear as the most vulnerable group in Taiwan. The Central Epidemic Command Centre (CCEC) of Taiwan immediately and indefinitely shut down 437 bars and dancing halls that provided hostess services across Taiwan. Hostess bars and dancing halls are the only two businesses that were shut down by the government due to Covid-19. As of writing, the CECC has still not lifted the ban.

The decision of CECC is most certainly controversial and gives rise to public debates in Taiwan. The CECC has contended that the government takes necessary measures — such as closing borders, quarantining people who have travel history, wearing masks and keeping social distance — to contain the Coronavirus by utilising scientific knowledge. The CECC also continually informs the public that people should not discriminate against those who become infected. Nonetheless, the CECC claims that hostesses and sex workers involve ‘more complicate social relations’ and thus, it is ‘difficult to track down the spread of the pandemic.’ This reasoning is used by the CECC to justify closing down hostess bars and dancing halls. In fact, the social distancing guideline issued by the CECC demands that people should keep social distance for 1.5 meters in indoor environments. However, if people all wear a mask, they could exempt from keeping social distance. In other words, if the social distancing guideline works for all kinds of businesses and schools, it should also work for sexual venues that provide hostess services. The CECC tracked down 123 persons who had been closely contacted with the Taipei hostess; however, they found that no one had been inflected. The hostess case, therefore, was completely closed on April 22. However, in light of this, the CECC still does not lift the current ban. The Taipei hostess case shows that the CECC not only fails to follow its own scientific measurements for containing Covid-19 but also reproduces the stigma of sex work and exacerbates the vulnerable situations of hostesses or sex workers. People’s utter loathsomeness of sex work quickly turns into public support for CECC. Local governments, such as Taipei, Taichung, and Kaohsiung, have even launched raids on various sexual establishments. Even though some social groups (e.g. Chinese spouses and their children, people who travel around during weekends, naval officers) are also identified as weak points for containing Covid-19, sex workers appear as the most vulnerable and silenced group.

Closing down hostess bars and dancing halls does not mean that hostess services have vanished. Nevertheless, many hostesses and sex workers are the breadwinners for their families (of origin), thus they quickly turn to social media such as WeChat or LINE to respond to opportunities offered by clients. Some feel forced to work as ‘chuanbomei’ — literally means communication sister— who could be delivered to karaoke, tea rooms, restaurants, or any assigned places to entertain clients. They might earn more money per session because there are not any third parties taking cuts from their earnings. However, they still have to work in unfamiliar environments without any protection. Furthermore, the clientele of ‘chuanbomei’ do not enjoy the same robust consuming power as that of bar or dancing halls. Thereby, women have to work for more sessions to secure a liveable income. Many women only can earn 20% of their regular income after the CECC has closed hostess bars and dancing halls.

In the past two months, the government has provided various bailout packages to workers who either lost incomes or jobs to Covid-19. Though, the government only offers bailouts to those workers who can prove that they have been affected by Covid-19. Nonetheless, as the majority of hostess bars, dancing halls and various other sexual establishment avoid directly hiring women, they outsource hostess jobs to independent agents to maximise their profits. Moreover, agents usually work as business partners who take cuts to organise work for hostesses or sex workers on a daily basis. Neither do they hire hostesses or sex workers. Hence, the majority of hostesses or sex workers fail to provide any documents to indicate that they are employed.

Furthermore, the subjects of bailout packages are not individual citizens, but are, instead, related to households. Also, households that have real estates, or a certain amount of savings, will not be included in bailout packages, and each household only allows one person to apply for a bailout. Means-tested bailouts only give financial aid to households which almost live on the edge of society or poverty line. It doubtlessly impedes hostesses or sex workers to get a bailout. Some hostesses or sex workers have not been in contact with their families of origin for years, as some do not want to risk exposing them to the nature of their work. At the same time, some are unqualified to apply for a bailout because their parents own real estates. Thereby, it is extremely difficult for hostesses or sex workers to get financial aid from the government. According to a Facebook page, Diary of Serving Ladies — which is run and organised by hostesses and agents —  they have helped over 70 hostesses and sex workers to apply for bailouts in the past month, but only two have managed to succeed. One got NT$15,000 and the other NT$20,000. How do they manage to get the bailout? One of them reported that ‘simply because my parents are just too poor.’

Currently, Taiwan has not developed new cases for 11 days and no local cases for 36 days. The CECC has recently lifted the ban on baseball games, exhibitions, and huge gatherings of more than 100 persons. As to the hostess bars and dancing halls, the CECC decides that local governments could lift the ban if they are well-prepared for containing Covid-19. In other words, the CECC does not want to deal with the political hot potato and leave it to the local government. Since sex work is always a controversial issue in Taiwan, local governments hardly want to confront mainstream sexual morality. This is why local governments are allowed to set up a sex district in their administrative regions since 2011. However, so far, there are not any sex districts in Taiwan. In the past week, only Penghu county and Tainan city reopen hostess bars and dancing halls with strict conditions — such as keeping social distance, demanding both clients and hostesses to wear masks, and having their names and addresses recorded in daily bases. It is important to note that both cities are not major administrative regions where hostesses or sex workers work. The CECC should utilise their expertise to reopen hostess bars and dancing halls, rather than pass the buck to local governments.

Mei-Hua Chen is Professor and Head of the Department of Sociology at National Sun Yat-Sen University in Taiwan. Her research interests, including women in body work, and non-normative intimacies in Taiwan. Recently her research has concentrated on migration and sexuality. She is particularly interested in examining how migration has an impact on Chinese migrant sex work in Taiwan, and Taiwanese men’s sex tourism in China.

This article is part of a special issue on the impact of Covid-19 on Taiwan’s economy.

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