Government has duty to ensure the safety of all

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 February, 2009, 12:00am

The shades of grey in the laws involving Hong Kong's sex industry have to be made more black and white. Prostitutes are our city's most vulnerable workers because of the ambiguities. That nine have been murdered in the past 12 months - three of them this year alone - clearly shows their dire circumstances. They deserve, and must be allowed to receive, better protection.

This is easier said than done. The applicable laws are broad and open to interpretation. Prostitution is legal but living off its proceeds or running vice establishments is not. Prostitutes have to work alone and only from their own premises; if they rent a room from which to sell sex, the landlord is liable for prosecution. So, too, would be a security guard hired to keep out robbers and potential killers.

Such laws are supposed to protect prostitutes, but they instead have the opposite effect. So-called one-woman brothels are easy prey for predators. A security camera and the occupants of neighbouring flats are the only legal means of protection a sex worker can have. Needless to say, these have posed no difficulties for the killers.

The murders have led to a dramatic improvement in communications between prostitutes and police. Relations in the past have too often been tense. It is good that prostitutes' complaints are, in general, being dealt with properly and information about potential threats is being shared. Such co-operation has to continue and go further.

No matter how much confidence is built between the sides, there will still be a considerable security shortfall. Only when the grey areas of the law have been properly dealt with can this be corrected. For that to happen, authorities have to openly talk about the problems prostitutes face. There has to be limited decriminalisation of the industry so that sex workers can be safe. This may involve them being able to hire security guards or work two or more to a flat. Whatever the solution arrived at, the government has a duty to ensure the safety of all residents, no matter what their line of work.