A plainclothes policeman catches a woman during a police crackdown on prostitution in Quanzhou, Fujian province, October 29, 2011. China should remove criminal and administrative penalties against sex workers which often lead to serious police abuses, Human Rights Watch said in a report released on May 14, 2013. Image Credit: AP

Hong Kong: Chinese sex workers are subjected to widespread abuse by authorities including beatings and torture in police custody and detention without trial, Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday.

“Sex workers are treated as if they have no rights,” the international watchdog’s China director Sophie Richardson told a press conference in Hong Kong to launch a report on the subject.

“Rather than being protected by police, sex workers are regularly subjected to beatings, ill-treatment and torture in custody,” she said, adding they could be detained in a “re-education through labour” camp for up to two years without trial.

“I was beaten until I turned black and blue because I wouldn’t admit to prostitution,” said one woman named as Xiao Yue in the report.

Another told how she and two other sex workers had been tied to trees by police, had cold water thrown on them and were then beaten.

The report said some of the abuses suffered by sex workers in custody “constitute torture under domestic law”.

Sex workers who have reported crimes against them, including rape, have themselves been arrested after revealing to police what they do for a living, Richardson said, as prostitution of any kind is illegal under Chinese law.

“I’ve been raped several times,” a sex worker identified as Mimi said in the report. “But because I am a sex worker, and selling sex is a violation of the law, I could be arrested. So I have never been willing to report to the police. I just have to grin and bear it.”

Sex workers are also subjected to forcible testing for HIV, with their privacy and patient confidentiality disclosed to third parties, the report said.

Richardson said there had been “an extraordinary boom in sex work” since Chinese economic reform began in the late 1970s and there were now an estimated four to six million sex workers in China. They are considered a “social evil” by Chinese officials, she said.

The report found that poverty was a driving factor leading women to become sex workers.

In China’s poorest regions gender inequality is endemic, with women twice as likely as men to be illiterate - by going into sex work, impoverished women can earn almost ten times more, the report said.

A migrant sex worker in the southern province of Guangdong could earn 4,000 yuan ($600) a month while a migrant woman not selling sex earns an average of 300 to 500 yuan a month, it said.

The Human Rights Watch report said many women over the age of 40 had turned to prostitution after being laid off by state enterprises in the late 1990s.

The New York-based watchdog conducted studies between 2008 and 2012, mainly in the Chinese capital Beijing, including interviews with 75 sex workers.