BEIJING (AFP) - A Chinese detention system for sex workers should be abolished, a rights group said on Tuesday, after the country's Communist authorities pledged to eliminate its notorious "re-education through labour" scheme.
"The harsh punishment China metes out to sex workers fails to eradicate or decrease the number of persons engaged in this trade, while further infringing on their human rights," New York-based rights group Asia Catalyst said in a report.
Prostitution is illegal in mainland China, but an estimated 2.7 to 6 million sex workers operate from establishments including karaoke bars, hair salons, saunas and massage parlours.
Of those millions of sex workers, as many as 28,000 are detained and held each year in nearly 200 "custody and education" centres, where campaign groups say inmates are regularly forced to do unpaid manual labour - and must pay for the privilege.
"Being a sex worker in China is like walking along a cliff. You don't know when you're going to fall," Shen Tingting, Asia Catalyst's advocacy director, said at a news conference in Beijing.
Female sex workers and male clients are held separately in the "custody and education" centres, which were established in the early 1990s and are managed by the country's public security organs rather than the justice ministry, which oversees China's 350 "re-education through labour" camps.
According to Chinese law, sex workers and their clients are subject to 10 to 15 days in short-term detention, up to 5,000 yuan (S$1,000) in fines, and can be sentenced by police to six months to two years in a "custody and education" centre, without a court hearing or the right to defend themselves.
Detainees are typically forced to do manual jobs such as cut rubber strips for tires, make cloth toys, fold paper bags or wrap disposable chopsticks for as many as nine hours a day, said Asia Catalyst, which based its report on interviews with 30 former inmates.
The cost of detention, which must be met by inmates or their families, ranged from 5,000 to 10,000 yuan for a minimum six-month term.
The group said that despite the "custody and education" system's goal of providing detainees with the skills to pursue new avenues of employment, all the sex workers it had interviewed returned to the sex industry immediately after their release.