Interview with Dr Eileen Yuk-ha Tsang, an researcher of sex workers in China

China is estimated to have four to six million sex workers. However, the society still holds many misconceptions about this vast number of workers. In this issue of China Labour Quarterly, we are honoured to have Dr Eileen Tsang, assistant professor of Department of Applied Social Science of City University of Hong Kong to discuss the issue with. Dr. Tsang has conducted extensive research on sex workers in China in past years. Her research aims to understand sex workers from different perspectives and hopes to eliminate the prejudice the general public has developed against sex workers.

During the interview, Dr Tsang repeatedly emphasized “sex work is work” and the public should not have prejudice against sex workers. The traditional social role of sex workers and the social discourses used to describe sex workers as being forced into prostitution or caused by their self deprivation. However, among her interviewees, she does not identify anyone who was forced into prostitution. On the contrary, sex industry provides prospects of upward social mobility, self-recognition and independence for low skilled workers with lower educational attainment.

Dr Tsang’s research reveals that low-end sex workers are often migrant workers who used to work in low-skilled manufacturing jobs, such as in garment or electronics factories. Most of them have only attended primary or middle schools. In 2008, the global financial crisis left a vast number of workers unemployed and many of them joined the sex industry to make their ends meet. Dr Tsang also notices that manufacturing workers face enormous exploitation. Low income, long working hours, poor occupational safety standards and precarious working conditions are some of the everyday challenges of these workers. Furthermore, rigid workplace environment does not offer them self-affirmation, since they are not able to rest and live freely due to the strict regulations imposed by factory managements. Although as sex workers, they would face discrimination, be exploited and extorted by pimps, clients and police, but why would such a large number of workers still choose to join the sex workforce? Dr Tsang’s research shows that when compared to manufacturing jobs, sex industry provides workers with higher income and more freedom. Workers realize that they become more independent and hence, enjoy a higher degree of freedom. Occasionally they feel even appreciated and recognized by their clients, a positive feeling the factory jobs could not offer. Higher income and more freedom turns out to be an important source of social capital for migrant workers. As today’s Chinese society is heavily dominated by consumerism and the motto “cash is king”, extra income and more leisure time help migrants to integrate better into the urban lifestyle, move upward socially, and expand their social circle. Through their job, many sex workers are able to improve their social status and gain self recognition.

Dr Tsang’s study does not only offer an in-depth analysis of sex workers’ mentalities, but also reveals the hopelessness migrant workers face in their career development and the lack of opportunity in upward mobility. Grassroots workers can hardly improve their skill level due to long working hours and rigid workplace settings; low income keeps their socio-economic status immobile and the worst of it, their dignity as workers is deprived by the inhuman treatment of factory management. In short, workers could neither feel independent, nor recognized at their workplace. Thus, to look into the needs of grassroots workers in China, in terms of career and personal development, is an important aspect in promoting labour rights in China.