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    Southeast Asia
     Mar 15, 2008
Philippines exporting labor and sex
By William Sparrow

BANGKOK - Although prostitution is illegal in the Philippines, sex remains a thriving industry both domestically and abroad. Many Filipinas ply the world's oldest profession in an attempt to overcome crushing poverty and the oppressive economic crisis gripping their homeland. Even Filipinas who work overseas legally - as maids, nannies or in other legitimate occupations - often find themselves turning to the sex trade to supplement meager incomes and to send money home to the Philippines to support impoverished family members.

The Philippines has a bustling sex trade with much variety. Small bars and clubs serve locals - often taxi drivers, laborers and even local teenagers looking to solve their virginity - and employ women from poor rural areas who "service" clients for as little as 200-400

pesos (US$5-$10). More glitzy establishments cater to foreigners, especially in areas such as Makati, Pasay, Ermita or Angeles City where GRO's (Guest Relations Officers) can be known to charge as much as 2,000-3,000 pesos ($50-$75), even for a "short time" experience.

A recent visit to Makati, the business district of Manila, found bars packed with scantily clad girls, many adorned in thong bikinis or lingerie and gyrating enthusiastically to Western pop music. Several were equally enthusiastically about grinding their nearly naked bodies against male customers' in hopes of enticing a business arrangement. The enticement is obviously doubled when two girls set upon a customer, but the 6,000 pesos or so required to take them out can have a cooling effect.

More "off the beaten track" places can be found throughout the Philippines, especially any place catering to foreign tourists, which is just about everywhere. Prices in these venues range from 1,000 - 2,000 pesos ($25-$50), but the price tag is often enough for an overnight companion.

Prices aside, the sheer volume of sex workers in the Philippines is staggering. The most recent report by the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimated that as of 1998 there were as many 500,000 women working in the sex trade.

The ILO report also estimated that some 150,000 Filipinas were working in Japan as "entertainers". In a 2005 interview with the Philippine Star a woman explained the realities of working there: "I used to work in Japan. I was there only six months. We enter as entertainers, but most of us have to earn through prostitution".

The Japanese Government was placed in Tier 2 in the 2007 United States Department of Stateís Trafficking in Persons Report for not fully complying with the Trafficking Victims Protection Actís minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, but making "significant efforts" to do so. Japan's significant effort appears to be largely based on a few arrests and limiting the number of entertainer's visas to about 80,000 - 100,000.

The Philippine government's own policies regarding overseas contract workers (OCWs) only helps to encourage the flow of women working abroad. But the situation in Japan is hardly unique: the popularity of Filipina OCWs is also evident on any Sunday afternoon on the streets and parks of Hong Kong. As Sunday is traditionally a day off for OCWs, hundreds of thousands of Filipinas meet to socialize with their compatriots. While many work as household helpers, a visit to Wan Chai - Hong Kong's red light district - makes it obvious that some Filipinas are moonlighting in the sex trade.

One such woman told Asia Times Online that she was a domestic helper, but frequented clubs to sell sex to mostly expatriate clients. "Yeah, I come to the bars sometimes to look for some extra cash from the customers for short time sex. In just a couple hours a few days a week I can easily double my salary", said the 23-year-old, who added that she was lucky to work for an employer who let her come out a few times a week.

"Some girls only get to come out on Sundays, it is not as easy for them. Even then some have strict curfews from their bosses. One girl had an ex-employer who would only let her out on Sundays and then she had to be back by 7pm. When the girl asked the employer 'why', the boss said, 'If you go out to the bars you'll get pregnant and then I'll have to find a new maid.' Can you imagine that?" she said.

"If nothing else I can see some friends and have a beer, maybe get lucky and make some money. It is always good when the US fleet is in town; I have had as many as three customers in one night," she said, appearing truly pleased by her good fortune.

"I want to send money back to my family in the Philippines and save some for myself. I don't get much as a maid so this helps me earn more," she said as she placed her hand on the thigh of an Asia Times Online' reporter.

The standard proscribed wage for a domestic helper is HKD$3,480 per month (roughly US$450). Working the bars can mean serious income for girls who charge usually a minimum of HKD $1,000 for a "quickie".

The situation for underpaid domestic helpers is consistent across Asia; not just in Hong Kong, but also in Singapore, Australia and Malaysia. From Shanghai to Dubai, young Asia women, frequently Filipinas, end up featuring prominently in the local sex scene.

The international migration of Filipinos seeking work has been prominent for decades. In the Philippines, labor is the top export; the government has long encouraged the practice by offering assistance in getting overseas jobs. One such perk is that OCWs are given "first grab" at land purchases in certain areas, with mortgages being subsidized by the government at low interest rates.

Asia Times Online reported last month that the Philippines' central bank estimated that migrant workers would send home at least $14 billion in 2007. This makes the Philippines number three in the world for foreign remittances, behind only Mexico and India. Each year funds sent from abroad represents almost 10% of the country's annual GDP.

Some portion of the money sent home, while it is hard to calculate to an exact amount, is no doubt coming from exporting Filipinas not only for labor, but also for sex.

William Sparrow has been an occasional contributor to Asia Times Online and now joins Asia Times Online with a weekly column. Sparrow is editor in chief of Asian Sex Gazette and has reported on sex in Asia for over five years. To contact him send question or comments to Letters@atimes.com.

(Copyright 2008 William Sparrow. All rights reserved. Please contact us about
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