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Almost legal: migrant sex work in New Zealand

New Zealand is lauded as the world's only country to fully decriminalise sex work, yet a catch makes that of little comfort to the temporary migrants working in the trade.

A roadside mural in Auckland, New Zealand. Chris Christian/Flickr. CC (by-nc)

New Zealand is a unusual context in which to explore the dynamics of sex worker-led organising against exploitation and the influence and impacts of the anti-trafficking framework on sex workers’ lives. What makes the country’s context so unique is its legal framework. New Zealand became the first country in the world to fully decriminalise sex work when the Prostitution Reform Act (PRA) was passed in 2003. It is also distinct because of the central role played by the sex worker-led New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective (NZPC). NZPC was established by a small group of sex workers in 1987. It has since developed into a strong, government funded organisation that is well respected as an authority on sex work issues. The organisation led a successful campaign for law reform which culminated in the decriminalisation of sex work in 2003. Thus, the situation in New Zealand is unique not only due to the legal framework in place, but also because of the impact sex worker organising has had on the government’s approach to sex work.

The power of decriminalisation

Since the passing of the PRA in 2003, research has highlighted the multiple benefits of decriminalising sex work. The evidence clearly indicates that sex workers are in a better position than they were prior to decriminalisation. Owing to this evidence, the decriminalisation of sex work is now widely supported by a range of international organisations, including Amnesty International and the World Health Organisation. The concrete benefits of decriminalisation are well illustrated by a 2014 case in which a sex worker, with the support of the NZPC, brought a case against a brothel operator for sexual harassment. This would be unthinkable in other countries where sex work is illegal. What’s more, she won the case and was awarded NZ$25,000 in compensation. The rights available to sex workers in the decriminalised context have clearly strengthened their capacity to challenge those who seek to exploit them.

The decriminalisation of sex work is now widely supported by a range of international organisations, including Amnesty International and the World Health Organisation.

A perfect law?

While it is indisputable that the law change has brought many positive benefits, and other countries would be well advised to adopt a similar framework, the law is still far from perfect. An infrequently discussed deficiency of the New Zealand model is the status of temporary migrants who work in the sex industry. Although it was (and still is) thought that migrants represent a minority of the overall sex worker population, in the latter stages of the law reform process some of those involved began to panic regarding risks of trafficking and a potential influx of sex workers into New Zealand. Subsequently, an amendment was introduced which prohibits migrants with temporary permits from working in sex work.

Thus, as the law currently stands, people who hold temporary permits can be deported if they are found to be selling sex. While not aggressively policed, the possibility of deportation is not an idle threat. In 2012, eight brothels were raided and 21 sex workers were found to be working illegally. Two of these sex workers left the country voluntarily and 19 were served with deportation liability notices. A study conducted in 2013 highlighted concerns regarding the precarious legal status of migrant sex workers – specifically that this situation could make migrant sex workers more vulnerable to exploitation.

A law of unintended consequences

Following on from this earlier work, I recently carried out nine in-depth interviews with NZPC representatives, sex workers, and a member of a faith-based organisation as part of the GAATW multi-country project on sex worker organising and responses to risks of exploitation. This research echoed concerns highlighted in the 2013 study, but also provided concrete examples of how this discriminatory aspect of the law manifests in sex workers’ working lives. For example, one migrant sex worker from China recalled being told by a client to provide a “good service”, or she risked him providing information on her work to authorities. Another sex worker described a situation in which a migrant co-worker had been blackmailed by an abusive client to provide services free of charge, and was too afraid to report this situation due to the risk of deportation. Sex workers interviewed were also concerned that the law opens up opportunities for brothel operators to exploit migrant workers through imposing long and inflexible working hours.

One migrant sex worker from China recalled being told by a client to provide a “good service”, or she risked him providing information on her work to authorities.

The interviews I conducted with the NZPC and the member of the faith-based organisation echoed these concerns. All participants felt strongly that the current law places migrant sex workers at increased risk of exploitation, instead of protecting them against it. While the clause that prohibits migrant sex work was introduced in part as an anti-trafficking measure, the insights gathered in this research suggest it has created conditions that are more likely to foster exploitation. The policy creates a significant disincentive for migrant sex workers who experience exploitation and violence to report these incidents. It is understandable that some migrant workers choose not to report adverse experiences when they could be asked to leave the country if immigration officials become aware of their sex work.

Supporting sex workers

This situation also presents a dilemma for NZPC in their work to support sex workers and challenge exploitation and violence. NZPC is a well-respected organisation that has developed relationships within government organisations, including the police, to champion sex worker rights and model best practice approaches to supporting sex workers. However, the valuable support that NZPC can provide is hamstrung by the current policy which fosters a fear of authorities among migrant sex workers. All interviewees felt that the law needs to change to ensure that all sex workers in New Zealand can fully benefit from a context that is explicitly intended to foreground their occupational health and safety.

A call for change

The framework in place in New Zealand is undoubtedly a good example for other countries to follow – decriminalising sex work has clear benefits. However, while it is important to learn from and celebrate the success of New Zealand’s model, we must also highlight its shortcomings and seek to address them. The discriminatory policy that is currently in place puts migrant sex workers at risk. If New Zealand is to live up to its reputation as a country that prioritises the health and safety of sex workers, then the law must change so that the protections of decriminalisation are available to all sex workers.

About the author

Lynzi Armstrong is a lecturer in criminology at Victoria University of Wellington, and a passionate advocate for the rights of sex workers. She has been researching and publishing on sex work for over 10 years. Her current research focuses on exploring how stigma and discrimination manifest for sex workers in the context of diverse legislative frameworks. You can follow her on Twitter @DrLynziA.


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