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Decriminalisation and labour rights: how sex workers are organising for legal reforms and socio-economic justice

The decriminalisation of sex work must be made central to the future of work, but that should only ever be a beginning rather than an end.

Demonstration in Paris on 22 September 2018 in memory of Vanessa Campos. Apaydin Alain/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

On 8 October 2018 we published the BTS Round Table on the Future of Work, in which 12 experts explain recent changes to the nature of work and offer new ideas in labour policy, organising, and activism. This piece has been written in response.

Political and public debates regarding sex work have intensified and crystalised into two apparently irreconcilable positions. On the one hand, we have calls for the recognition of sex work as work, with the primary goal being the end to criminalisation and legal oppression. On the other, we have the view that prostitution should be regarded as intrinsic violence against women. From this perspective criminalisation – and especially the criminalisation of clients – is an important part of larger efforts to disrupt, decrease, and ultimately abolish prostitution. This debate has important ramifications for efforts to grapple with the future of work, as opposition to the basic notion of sex work as work like any other continues to undercut efforts to improve rights and protections for sex workers.

The abolitionist model of criminalising clients has recently gained considerable ground across Europe. France, Norway, Sweden, Ireland and Northern Ireland have all criminalised the purchase of sex. Israel and other countries are debating similar laws, and Spain officially announced a ‘feminist abolitionist’ government. Despite this negative trend, sex workers continue to self-organise and formulate collective demands against their precariousness and exploitative working conditions.

By way of further illustration, I’d like to share three current examples from different European countries that demonstrate both the breadth of sex workers’ organising and the obstacles they face.

Snapshots of oppression, snapshots of solidarity – Autumn 2018

In September, Spanish media reported that a new sex worker union, Organización de Trabajadoras Sexuales (OTRAS), had been created and officially registered by the Department of Labour. In response, the Spanish government announced its decision to disband it. Pedro Sanchez, the Spanish president, confusingly justified this annulment on Twitter by saying prostitution is illegal in Spain. It’s not, and despite the political pressure OTRAS followed through with the launch of their union and continued their project of to self-organisation.

In the United Kingdom, a grassroots campaign led by sex workers and allies from diverse sex worker-led organisations coordinated the launch of the DecrimNow campaign at the fringe Labour Party Conference in Liverpool. British and migrant sex workers – both street-based and indoors – denounced the impact of criminalisation, austerity and poverty on their living and working conditions and called for the Labour Party to support them as precarious and informal workers.

In France, sex workers recently mourned the murder of Vanessa Campos, a migrant transgender sex worker from Peru who had worked in France for two years. Vanessa was killed in August 2018 by a group of men as they attempted to rob her client. For several months prior to that attack, Vanessa and her colleagues had tried to report these aggressors to the police who ignored them. The apathy and silence of the political class was denounced by sex workers and trans organisations such as STRASS and ACCEPTESS-T through demonstrations, vigils and articles. Sex workers and allies had previously warned of the dangerous implications of the 2016 French law criminalising the purchase of sex, which has increased the vulnerability and precarity of sex workers and forced them to work in more dangerous areas.

Her murder sparked a wave of global protests from Amsterdam to Bogotá. In each city, sex workers and their allies stood in solidarity with sex workers in France whilst also linking Vanessa’ s murder to local struggles against racism, transphobia, police harassment and violence against sex workers.

Demands for a better future

Taken together, these three examples provide visible and concrete examples of the ongoing self-organisation of sex workers as workers and their united and unequivocal demands for decriminalisation, labour and human rights. Sex workers are also calling for: justice for all in their community; documentation and the right to work for all migrant workers; an end to transphobia and greater access to education and other forms of economic activity for trans people; reform of the welfare state; and an end to austerity. While the call for decriminalisation captures the headlines, it should be clear that there is much more going on here.

The European network for sex workers’ rights, ICRSE, supports and amplifies the voices of sex workers in Europe. It also develops resources analysing exploitation in the sex industry and violations of sex workers’ rights. Over the next two years, thanks to the support of the Oak Foundation, ICRSE will coordinate a project aiming at supporting migrant sex workers to tackle exploitation and trafficking in the sex industry in partnership with several of our member groups. The project is a response to the continued criminalisation of migration and sex work, and to the negative effects of increasingly repressive ‘security measures’ on migrant sex workers. Sex workers aren’t unique in this struggle. Precarious workers everywhere face similar types of challenges, and the voices and experiences of sex workers can contribute greatly to larger campaigns for greater rights and protections for all workers and migrants. Greater solidarity between migrant and labour organisations and the sex workers’ movement is the future.

Round table on the future of work

About the author

Luca Stevenson is the coordinator if the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE), a network of more than 100 organisations led by and/or working with sex workers in Europe and Central Asia.


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