Labor Migrants to Sex Workers

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Ani’s and Lia’s experiences as labor migrants in the formal economy provided the conditions for them to undertake another form of labor migration— this time into the informal sector as sex workers in the Riau Islands. Their experiences of entering the sex industry represent two ends of the spectrum. Ani was tricked into the sex industry by an acquaintance. In late 1997, her neighbor, Ibu Eka, approached her while she was waiting at the Raja Basah bus terminal in Lampung City to return to her job in Jakarta.

Ibu Eka suggested that Ani join her in Malaysia where she was working in a factory earning a monthly wage almost fifty times what Ani was getting. The promise of so much money was irresistible and Ani accepted the invitation. But Ani never made it to Malaysia. Ibu Eka brought her to Karimun, supposedly a transit site for the next leg of their journey. Not long after she arrived, Ani was taken to work in a brothel complex that housed around six hundred sex workers. Ani worked there for two years. During that time she never managed to send any money to her family. She explained that “women like her” became trapped in the industry: The trouble is once you’re working here, it’s hard to move on. Most sex workers have a really low level of education and their only work experience is in the sex industry. They can’t go into [petty] trade because they don’t have any capital, and they can’t work in the supermarket because they don’t meet the educational requirements.

It’s impossible to leave [the brothel] if you’re not a good talker, if you don’t stand up for yourself. Like me—I wanted to get out but I couldn’t. Most of my friends were afraid too. In fact, most people who do that sort of work aren’t brave people. I’m not sure what we were all scared of really. Unlike Ani, Lia was a “good talker,” who could “stand up for herself.” After leaving Singapore, Lia returned briefly to her village, but soon decided to work in the Riau Islands. She was employed in a small brothel run by a local Malay woman. Lia resented having to share her takings with the madam, who deducted large amounts of money for food and lodging on top of her 50 percent cut. Eventually Lia decided to leave: After four months I decided to run away. I was sick of working in a high- risk job without making any money. I figured I’d be better off on my own, finding my own clients and keeping all the money for myself. That’s what I was thinking. She [the madam] threatened me, you know. She said she’d report me to the police and all that. I said, “I don’t care if you report me to the police here. Even if you report me to the police in Jakarta I’m not scared. Prostitution isn’t permitted in this world.” That’s what I said to her. I might not be very educated, but I know that prostitution is illegal, so I didn’t care where she reported me.

Lia had amassed a file containing the contact details of those clients she had liked when working in the brothel, and used this list to establish herself as a freelance sex worker. While she met most of her clients in one of Karimun’s numerous hotels, some of her regulars would ask her to meet them in Singapore. These arrangements were mutually beneficial. All Lia’s costs were covered and she went home with four times the going rate for an overnight booking in Karimun; meanwhile, her clients received twenty-four hours of service without the annoyance of a ferry trip and at considerably less cost than had they hired a Singaporean-based sex worker. Ani’s and Lia’s experiences of sex work initially appear to be quite different. While Ani was sold and trafficked into prostitution, Lia made a conscious decision to travel to the Riau Islands to become a sex worker. They also experienced different degrees of autonomy in negotiating sex work— Ani was bonded to a brothel where the madam dictated her working conditions, while Lia decided to strike out on her own as a freelancer. Lia’s freedom to pick and choose the clients whom she “liked” provided her with more freedom to negotiate the conditions of her work. However, both women were subject to the whims and fancies of their clients and to the inevitable risks of violence and sexually transmitted diseases. While Lia’s freelance status provided her with greater financial rewards, she was much more vulnerable to harassment by local authorities and had to work hard to maintain her client base. By contrast, while Ani earned much less than Lia, she had some protection under her contractual arrangement with her madam.  

 

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