Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

What’s so unacceptable about sex work? A framework for sex worker rights advocacy

An ILO framework can be used to push for including sex work within labour protection systems. Let’s put it to use.

Leo Villar
24 September 2019
A hostel in Thailand.
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Jo./Flickr. Creative Commons (by)

Advocating for the rights of sex workers has been an ongoing battle around the world for decades. Recognition of these rights is a much more recent phenomenon. The biggest win for sex workers so far was New Zealand’s passage of the Prostitution Reform Act in 2003. More recently, Mexico City has started the process of decriminalising sex work as a move against trafficking for sexual exploitation; and in New York, advocates have introduced a bill that would decriminalise the sale and purchase of sexual services by consenting adults.

While support from policymakers is essential to progress, gaining allies within governments remains a challenge. This is despite calls for decriminalisation by a number of international human rights organisations including Amnesty International, International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, and several United Nations agencies. One of the biggest difficulties has been the long-standing conflation of sex work with trafficking, which is linked to the belief that sex work is inherently immoral. This view of sex work has shaped national policies for decades, pushing the industry outside the formal labour market and the scope of national labour laws and international standards.

However, there is a framework that might help shift the situation for the better. In an effort to expand protections beyond the formal labour market, the International Labour Organization (ILO) released a study on Unacceptable Forms of Work (UFW). This provides a framework for determining unacceptability in formal and informal sectors, and is thus applicable to the sex sector. The UFW model contains twelve dimensions of unacceptability: forced labour; health and safety; income; security; working time; voice mechanisms; child labour; social protection; equality, human rights, and dignity; legal protection; family and community life; and work organisation. The indicators that accompany these dimensions are designed to be responsive to the socio-economic contexts of countries at different levels of development.

Under the UFW model, unacceptability in sex work manifests where these twelve dimensions occur, but the work itself is not treated as inherently unacceptable. Used well, this framework could be a way for sex worker rights advocates to argue for the inclusion of sex work under national labour law systems, and for the development of policy and programmatic interventions that address unacceptability.

When sex work becomes unacceptable in Thailand

I recently used the UFW model to examine the sex and entertainment industry in Thailand. The findings, which are based on over 100 interviews with sex workers, their employers, government officials and civil society, show that the criminalisation and stigmatisation of sex work along with insufficient oversight of labour conditions have created an environment where several indicators of UFW are present in the industry. It concluded that the decriminalisation of sex work is a crucial first step to addressing these indicators and protecting the human rights of sex workers.

One of the most prevalent factors of unacceptability was sex workers’ inability to access legal protection. Labour inspection systems intended to identify abuses in work conditions and terms of employment were being used to arrest rather than protect sex workers. This is especially concerning for migrants who enter Thailand through irregular channels and are often misidentified as victims of trafficking. As the director of one nongovernmental organisation explained:

“The situation now is that migrants are seen as illegal. So when they work in sex work, they are [seen as] doubly illegal [from the perspective] of human trafficking and foreign migrant labour. This means whenever a migrant is found in sex work, he or she is automatically considered a human trafficking victim, while in fact, s/he may work voluntarily. As long as foreign migrants working in Thailand are considered illegal, they will have to hide [from authorities] and this puts them at a disadvantage and the employers have an advantage.”

As a result of criminalisation, many sex workers – including migrants – are deterred from reporting exploitative work conditions, violence from employers and clients, or even everyday crimes like being robbed or mugged by local gangs.

To better protect the rights of sex workers, any policy changes concerning sex work should be made only after the meaningful participation of sex workers themselves. Sex worker organisations in Thailand like the Empower Foundation have already used ILO’s Decent Work Framework to highlight the legal and practical changes they would like to see in the industry. Furthermore, following their submission to the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) for Thailand’s periodic review in 2017, the committee made strong recommendations to improve the working conditions of sex and entertainment workers in Thailand. That is progress that can be built upon.

Sex work has been branded as unacceptable for ages. But perhaps with the UFW model, it could be said that the only thing unacceptable is its exclusion from labour law systems and the long-standing failure to protect sex workers’ rights.

This article was first published in Anti-Trafficking Review, issue 12.

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