BANGKOK - Sex workers in Thailand have launched a petition calling for prostitution to be decriminalized and urging authorities to remove all penalties for selling and buying sex.
Empower Foundation, a Chiang Mai-based group that supports sex workers, said it hoped to collect 10,000 signatures and present the petition to parliament to help persuade lawmakers to consider changing the country's prostitution law.
"The law punishes sex workers - 80 percent of whom are mothers and the main breadwinner for the whole family," said Mai Junta, a representative from Empower.
"It turns us into criminals," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Tuesday.
More than 1,000 people had signed the petition since it was launched on Saturday.
Thailand is predominantly Buddhist and deeply conservative, but is home to an extensive sex industry, largely catering to Thai men.
Hordes of tourists also flock to the bright lights of go-go bars and massage parlors in the Thai capital Bangkok, and the country's main tourist towns.
Women and LGBT+ rights activists say the current law, which made prostitution illegal in 1960, does little to protect sex workers, while repeated arrests and fines for doing sex work has driven them further into poverty.
A 2014 report by the UN agency fighting AIDS estimated that there were 123,530 sex workers in Thailand but advocacy groups put the figure at more than twice that number and say it includes tens of thousands of migrants from neighboring Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Prostitution is currently punishable by a fine of up to 40,000 baht ($1,274) or 2 years in prison, or both, while people who pay for sex with underage workers can be jailed for up to 6 years.
More than 24,000 people were arrested, prosecuted and fined for sex work-related offenses in Thailand last year, according to the Royal Thai Police.
The ministry of social development and human security's women's affairs and family development department was unable to give an immediate comment.
Surang Janyam, director of the Service Workers in Group, a Thailand-based support organization for sex workers, said the prostitution law should be repealed to allow sex workers to be protected under labor laws.
"The sex industry generates massive income (for the country), but there is no mechanism to protect (sex workers)," Surang said.
($1 = 31.4000 baht)