By Panarat Thepgumpanat
BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Police charged five Thai men running a brothel in Bangkok with human trafficking after raiding a massage parlour and arresting 121 sex workers, including 15 who were under the age of 18.
Police Colonel Thepphitak Saengkla said that of the 15 underage sex workers discovered after the raid at Nataree Massage earlier this week, one was Thai and the rest were foreigners - mostly from neighbouring Myanmar.
The girls are now in the care of the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security, Thepphitak said.
"The girls under 18 are victims of human trafficking," Police Colonel Chayud Marayat, head investigator in the case at Huay Khwang district police station, said on Friday.
Selling sex is illegal in Thailand, but authorities generally turn a blind eye to the country's thriving sex industry, with occasional crackdowns such as Tuesday's raid.
Nataree is one of dozens of "soapy massage" parlours across Bangkok - where clients select a woman sitting behind a "fishbowl" glass wall by a number pinned to her chest, then bathes with her and has sex at a cost of around 3,000 baht ($85) for an hour and a half.
The raid at Nataree made headlines in Thailand because of a ledger, which was photographed and shown on news websites, that appeared to show bribes to authorities, including to the tourist police and immigration police.
Of all the sex workers arrested at Nataree, nearly 100 were foreigners, Thepphitak said.
The Thai women arrested were charged with "mingling" in an entertainment venue, fined 1,000 baht and released, he said.
One group of adult foreign sex workers is being detained and prosecuted for not having work permits, he said.
The other group of foreigners has been fined 4,500 baht for working in a profession that does not match the one indicated on their work permits, and are being sent to the immigration detention centre to be deported.
Usa Lerdsrisuntad, of the Bangkok-based Foundation for Women rights group, pressed for the amendment of Thai laws that charge sex workers as criminals.
"The law with respect to prostitution and sex work has to be changed. Women should not be criminalised," she said.
"They have no labour protections. They don't have the power to bargain with their employers. Some women have no choice but this line of work because their origin communities are unable to provide them jobs."
The five men arrested and detained have been charged with human trafficking, with a maximum sentence of 10 to 15 years imprisonment, Chayud said.
(Reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat, writing by Alisa Tang, editing by Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)