The Chinese government announced in November that it was officially abolishing its so-called reeducation through labor program, but sex workers in China continue to be subject to forced labor and violence at the hands of prison guards under a near-identical penal system.
As the New York Times reports, human rights groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Asia Catalyst have found that the "custody and education" program forces sex workers to work without pay to produce toys, chopsticks and other items packaged for export, among other abuses. The clients of sex workers are also penalized under this system, but at a dramatically lower rate.
In addition to working under abusive conditions without pay, the women incarcerated under the program are forced to pay for their meals, jail beds and other expenses; those who cannot pay are forced to subsist on little to nothing. In some of these facilities, visitors are forced to pay an entrance fee, presenting a barrier for many families and isolating many women who are incarcerated from their friends, family and communities.
While the fees are often devastating to these women and their families, they are quite profitable for the detention facilities and law enforcement officials, according to the Times:
The Asia Catalyst report portrays custody and education as a vast moneymaking enterprise masquerading as a system for rehabilitating women. Established by China’s legislature in 1991, the detention centers are run by local public security bureaus, which have the final say on penalties. Former inmates say police officials sometimes solicit bribes to release detainees.
The government does not publish regular statistics on the program, but experts estimate that 18,000 to 28,000 women are sent to detention centers each year. Inmates are required to pay for food, medical exams, bedding and other essential items like soap and sanitary napkins, with most women spending about $400 for a six-month stay, the report said.
“The next time the police come to take me away, I’ll slit my wrists,” Li Zhengguo, a sex worker and single mother who was sentenced without a trial to six months at a forced labor detention, told the Times.
Sex workers and other advocates calling for an end to the system must battle public stigma and an entrenched domestic security apparatus, but continue to demand reform, as well as broader reforms to decriminalize sex work and support sex workers' fundamental rights.
“The way they are treated is such a violation of their dignity,” Shen Tingting, an advocacy director at Asia Catalyst, told the Times. “The entire system stigmatizes women and sends out a message that sex workers are dirty and need to be reformed.”