Vol 1, No 22
22 November 1999
C Z E C H R E P U B L I C:
Taxing the Professionals
Few people in the Czech Republic can disassociate the mention of prostitution from the infamous stretch of highway E55 on northern Bohemia's Czech-German border, especially the small town of Dubi, known for the girls and garden gnomes lining its streets. These days, Dubi is no longer the roadside peepshow it once was. It may be November and the first spattering of snow may already be covering the local roads, but there is not doubt that the number of scantily clad gals both in town and on the highway has diminished in the past years. As Jana - a streetworker for Angela, an organisation based out of Germany whose employees regularly drop in on sex clubs and prostitutes in the northern border region covering the towns of Dubi, Teplice and Chomutov - explains, a layman may get the impression that prostitution has virtually been wiped out in the area. More accurate, however, would be to say that ever since Dubi city authorities and residents launched a vocal, highly publicised and persistent protest against the tarnishing of Dubi's streets and reputation (which included appeals to both houses of Parliament), prostitution has moved from the open air into the more than 40 sex clubs in town.
And while city authorities consider the drop in visibility a triumph on their part, Jana has not noted a corresponding drop in the number of sex-trade workers or a change in attitude among local citizens. The majority of them still view Jana and her colleagues as supporting the sex industry and contributing to the problem.
Dubi, of course, is not the only Czech border town with a thriving sex industry. In the Czech Republic, prostitution is largely concentrated along the country's borders - with Austria in the south, Germany in the west and north and to a lesser degree with Poland in the north-east.
After 1989, these border regions witnessed a bloom of, as one newspaper headline put it, "garden gnomes and loose women." But in recent years, the crackdown in Dubi seems to have caught on and other municipalities have started using their right to enact specific decrees in the name of keeping the peace to curb prostitution, or at least push it out of sight. Today, Jana's clients complain more and more of receiving fines for offering sexual services in public or losing customers on account of newly imposed prohibitions against stopping at roadsides. Such moves have made girls working the streets nervous about loss of business and have pushed much of this business into clubs.
A decent wage
And although according to Jana, the days when girls could earn DM 50 an hour are gone, and these days more of them are having to settle for DM 30, so far, the number of prostitutes is by no means on the decline. The reason is simple, explains Dr Hana Malinova, director of Rozkos bez Rizika (R-R, Pleasure without Risk), an organisation of streetworkers based out of Prague and aimed primarily at educating prostitutes about sexually transmitted diseases:
"Times are tough and getting tougher… The economic situation is getting worse and this is one of the few relatively lucrative professions."
As Malinova points out, any time the economic situation worsens, a shift occurs and middle classes start entering the profession. With more women on the streets and in clubs, competition is high and pimps have a freer hand in replacing ones who "misbehave," because there are plenty of others to take their place.
And although these days, Jana's clients tell her they would rather go work than wait around for DM 50 all week, there are no jobs to be had, at least none that offer a viable alternative, as Dr Malinova explains:
"We ask [our clients] what they've tried, what they did previously. And they say, 'I tried everything: I taught horseback riding; I was a bartender; a lifeguard… and nowhere was I able to earn a decent wage.' And by decent wage they don't mean some exorbitant sum. But they simply need at least that Kc 10,000 a month, because if they are paying Kc 3000 for rent, for not much of an apartment, then Kc 6000 to Kc 7000 is just about right - if they want to buy clothes, cigarettes or whatever, and also to have some kind of financial security. They can't live on a single cot forever. It's not even that they have to spend everything, but maybe they would like to buy an apartment eventually, fix up their home, do something."
Nevertheless, according to Malinova, R-R encourages all of its clients to disentangle themselves and even if they don't abandon prostitution completely to at least find a job that will offer them some security and just "turn an occasional trick" on the side. "We tell them: If you take a job as a cleaning woman somewhere, then at least you have Kc 6000 or Kc 7000, and then if you make a little extra, fine, but even if you don't, you can still pay your rent."
But, as Malinova points out, Romani women, for example, have trouble getting even that cleaning woman job, and they are the first ones to get fired. Even if their accent is good enough to get an interview over the phone, when they arrive, they are told the position has been filled. In an attempt to counter this, R-R has recently devised a new a project, whereby Caucasian R-R workers will act as middlemen to get their Romani clients work that they will be able to do at home.
On the take
While prostitution may be a more lucrative profession than some more readily available jobs, the majority of prostitutes in the Czech Republic are by no means in control of their trade. Sometimes up to 80% of their earnings go toward paying off pimps and other middlemen. In clubs, the split is usually 50-50, with various bogus fines being levied by club owners at every opportunity.
Of course, as Malinova points out, with many pimps, on the surface everything is divided evenly: "He tells her: 'Of course, sweetie, this will be ours,' but the car is in his name. 'This is our apartment,' but everything is in his name… Then, when she breaks up with him she is left with nothing. We try to prevent this kind of a social fall."
So is it possible to get around the pimp, bypass the middleman and somehow put prostitutes more in control of their trade?
"Well look, those things are all criminal offences," says Malinova, "So apparently it isn't… These are laws which should work and don't. We have a law which covers pimping, a law which covers trafficking in women. But look at how many cases have been brought to trial. Of course, their [the police's, ed] excuse is that no one wants to testify, but if they really wanted to they could plant their own woman there. If they were really interested [in prosecuting pimps], they could set up cameras; they could do whatever they wanted, but they don't want to."
The tales of police inaction on prosecuting pimps and traffickers can be heard repeatedly from anyone working in the terrain, and although the tales are so common that it is almost no longer necessary to quote a source, most streetworkers are still hesitant to be identified when pointing to instances of corruption.
"I would like to live to see the year 2000, so you don't have to make this public," said one social worker half-jokingly after informing me that: "…there are definitely ties to the police. Of course not to all police, but the ones that are there [on the street] every day… If nothing else, then they at least come to pick up [their fee] in kind."
Whether in the capital city or the border regions, streetworkers who work with prostitutes relay the same stories of witnessing police officers regularly on the take. As Jana explains, in Dubi, prostitutes have also recently got in on the action. With the recently passed by-law prohibiting stopping on the forest roads on the outskirts of town, a common practice has become to take money from customers ahead of time and direct them onto one of the roads, knowing that police will show up within minutes and fine the driver.
Neither Jana nor Dr Malinova can boast of a happy co-operation between their respective organisations and the police. So rather than attempting to free its clients of their pimps via the law, Malinova explains that R-R tries to break the hold of the pimps by bolstering the women psychologically. "That way the woman gains self-esteem, and through this internal route she perhaps manages to get a larger share of her earnings and doesn't put up with so much. It’s more through this type of work [that we tackle these problems] rather than through any legislative changes.
Chewing the legislative cud
But it is precisely with legislative changes that the Czech Ministry of Interior intends to combat an industry that, in its view, is depriving the state of deserved tax revenue. The Ministry has been chewing the cud on the question of regulation and taxation of prostitution since the end of 1993, and this spring (six years later), it finally presented a lengthy report on the subject to the government.
Under the Communist regime, prostitution - which was then mostly confined to certain hotels, bars and select spa resorts - was most often prosecuted under the "social parasitism" clause, which was aimed at persons found to be without proper employment, and thus, for example, also applied to private entrepreneurs and beggars.
Today, prostitution per se is not prosecuted as a criminal act but is covered indirectly by other violations, such as pimping and trafficking, exposing others to sexually transmitted diseases, sexual abuse, jeopardising the moral upbringing of a minor. Additionally, a law on misdemeanours covers public offer of sexual services explicitly and also allows individual municipalities to determine specific misdemeanours according to what local authorities deem to be a violation of public peace.
The Ministry's 50-page report sets out to change these roundabout routes by suggesting strict guidelines for the regulation of prostitution. These would include designation of places where prostitution would be tolerated and those where it would be prohibited, with local authorities determining regional specifics; prohibition of certain persons - namely those under the age of 18 - practising the profession; obligatory registration for all prostitutes working in the Czech Republic, to enable collection of taxes and health insurance dues; and obligatory regular medical check ups.
Neatly contained within seemingly rational bullet points, section divisions, categorisations and accompanying tables, graphs and illustrations, it all sounds very convincing. And after plodding through the pages of "Analysis of the Problems Associated with Prostitution" and "Conditions for a Systemic Approach to Solving Problems Associated with Prostitution," one emerges confident that the waters of seediness and sin have been meticulously charted and solutions are only a parliamentary vote away. With visions of emancipated and healthy prostitutes diligently filling out tax forms and paying their share into the social safety net, one is assured that such a system would be best for all sides involved. More importantly, one begins do think such a system would actually be executable.
It is only when one begins to consider the practicality of it all that things begin to get a little murky. And it only takes a few minutes of talking with Dr Malinova in R-R's downtown office to jolt one out of the wonderland of state bureaucracy. Asked if she thinks such a taxation system is viable, Malinova answers with more than a bit of tongue in cheek:
"Oh, surely the national economy will be saved and the money will go toward orphanages, MPs' wages and other such indispensable things... I am sure many civil servants are looking forward to being the ones to collect the taxes."
This is not the first time Dr Malinova has seen the report; the Ministry has asked her to give detailed assessments of it several times since 1994. At first, she took it seriously, but today, after several rounds of revisions, she sees it as a "political pennant of wilting political parties, who when they don't know where to turn, come and say 'Yes! We will tax prostitutes and all will be well with the world.' Which is always easier to do than something such as, say, fixing Prague canalisation… the government is losing billions... but all this will be rescued by the poor women standing out there on the street freezing until five in the morning."
And although she admits the question of regulation is not a clear cut one and acknowledges arguments for and against, Malinova insists that before thinking up new laws, the existing ones should be enforced.
Of course, even this report is still only a proposal and is now undergoing legislative consultation - with no threat of an actual law until January 2001.
Moreover, the changes proposed by the Ministry will not be applicable to a large proportion of prostitutes working Czech streets and clubs anyway. In the Czech Republic, as in other East European countries, prostitution is inextricably intertwined with trafficking of women. The country is in the unique position of being a point of origin, sale and transit of women. Dr Malinova estimates that 40% of the female sex trade workers in the Czech Republic are foreigners, of which currently 25% to 30% are Ukrainian. Other common countries of origin are Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia. Along Jana's Czech-German border route, the split between domestic and foreign workers is about 50-50, with most women coming from the former USSR, some from as far as Kazakhstan. Many are university-educated, some are doctors and engineers, and several are supporting children and families in their home countries.
But whether in Prague or on the border, most women don't remain in the country longer than six weeks, some are gone after a week, certainly not long enough to obtain a work permit and register with the taxman. Many disappear after the expiry of their three-month tourist visa; some cross the border, renew the visa and re-enter the country. It is hard enough for Dr Malinova and her colleagues to track the women's health let alone collect taxes.
Malinova explains that since it is the foreign women who are most in demand, but no one will give them a work permit, usually when prostitution is regulated, they are the ones pushed underground. They continue to turn tricks, but their position becomes significantly worse: they become more stressed and are more firmly in the hands of the pimps and Mafia than when prostitution is left relatively free.
Not even the scores of figures in the report are as cut and dry as the Ministry would have it. Beginning with the magical figure of Kc 10 billion in estimated annual lost tax revenue due to the unregistered work of pimps and prostitutes, which has been tossed around in every newspaper story on the subject, confident estimates abound throughout the report. These give the impression that although perhaps not (yet) controlled, the sex industry in the Czech Republic is carefully monitored. In fact, most of the figures are shots in the dark and some, according to Malinova, are just plain wrong - such as the claim that the majority of Czech prostitutes on the street are Romani women (Malinova claims the figure currently stands at about one-third).
Although in the report, the Minstry claims that between 15,000 and 25,000 women make their living from prostitution (with 4000 to 5000 of them doing so on the street), Malinova, with her six years of experience as a streetworker in the terrain, refuses to speculate on the number of prostitutes currently working in the Czech Republic: "How do I know who is and who isn't a prostitute?" she asks. "There is just no way to know. A large unknown is the whole escort service industry, for example. They advertise five telephone numbers, and when we call them all, it's the same woman every time."
Just as misleading are the report's five-tiered categories of prostitution: which run the gamut form the "high class" prostitute who moves within "luxury surroundings," to hotel prostitutes, massage salon prostitutes and the lowest of the low - street prostitutes. Some of the descriptions would spruce up any CV, in fact: "hotel prostitutes... command at least one foreign language and have good presentation."
Unfortunately, Malinova warns against such oversimplified portraits of sex clubs and hotels as the domain of the "intellectual cream of the crop" of the sex-trade and points out that the division between club and street - indoor and outdoor prostitution - is more complicated and not entirely class determined. "There are some women who try it out in the clubs but return to the street, because they can't stand to be locked up. On the other hand, some don't want to be seen, so they go into the clubs."
All of the above oversimplifications and oversights indicate that the mammoth report was largely intended as a bit of a misguided make-work project and add weight to Malinova's claim that it is a case of "too much money being spent on making sure that people don't start poking around too much." In the process, attention seems to have been deflected from some of the real problems surrounding prostitution in the Czech Republic.
One of these problems is the fight against sexually transmitted diseases and the recent alarming increase of cases of syphilis. Next week, we will examine how while the Ministry of Interior's hefty report makes its lengthy legislative rounds, streetworkers such as Dr Malinova are confronting this problem on the ground.
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