Is Cambodia’s aggressive anti-trafficking campaign forcing sex workers into an even worse trade? A video exposé from Vice News claims that Cambodian authorities are “rehabilitating” former prostitutes in garment sweatshops, where conditions and pay are even more deplorable. Vice founder Suroosh Alvi traveled to Phnom Penh to witness one of the country’s brother raids in person. “This is as dark as it gets,” he says on camera.

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Sex workers brought into police custody are given a simple choice, according to Alvi: accept training for a new career or remain behind bars, where they’re vulnerable to abuse and shakedowns by corrupt police, indefinitely. More often than not, the women accept the retraining, nearly always for Cambodia’s garment industry, which employs half a million Cambodians and accounts for 80 percent of the Southeast Asian country’s exports.

Since the crackdowns began in 2008, the Cambodian government says it has given thousands of sex workers a fresh start. The truth is a little grayer, however. “We soon learn that many of these women didn’t want to be rescued at all,” Alvi says.

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Alvi met with one of these so-called “reformed” sex workers. After Pol Pholly’s arrest, police released her into the custody of a local non-governmental organization to transition her to a new career. “They convinced me that NGOs could change my life,” Pholly tells him. “That place was like a prison. They closed the door and wouldn’t let me out.”

Other women Alvi spoke to echoed Pholly’s experience. At a minimum wage of $80 per month, most garment workers are hard-pressed to feed their families while keeping roofs over their heads.

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“Working at the factory is very hard,” Seng Srey Mon, another garment worker, tells Alvi. “They make us stand every day from morning until night. We only get a short break.” To provide for her children, Seng moonlights as a prostitute every night, earning $8 per customer.

Pholly, who likewise returned to prostitution, says that she would never go back to garment work in its current form.

Not all sex workers are victims of trafficking, Alvi says. In fact, a surprisingly number are entering brothels of their own free will. And there’s the rub.

“For now, women are choosing prostitution over garment work,” he adds. “And that, more than anything, paints a very stark picture of what the reality is for Cambodia’s girls and women.”

+ Vice News