NSW brothel law changes will undermine sex workers’ safety

September 14, 2012
Scarlett Alliance members.

Indoor and outdoor sex work is currently decriminalised in New South Wales. This may soon change with the proposed introduction of a brothel licensing scheme. The licensing scheme will take brothel regulation out of the hands of local councils and will give police powers to regulate brothels.

The NSW government says this scheme is needed to reduce sex trafficking and the involvement of organised crime in the running of brothels. However, one of the deciding factors in the decriminalisation of sex work in 1995 were findings by the Wood Royal Commission "showing a clear nexus between police corruption and the operation of brothels". The national body representing sex workers, Scarlet Alliance, opposes these changes and is advocating for brothels to remain decriminalised.

The proposed changes are based on the recommendations made by an “expert” panel commissioned by the state government that did not include a single past or present sex worker. The recommendations are contrary to those made in the recent Kirby Institute report on sex work in NSW and recommendations by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS) on sex work.

If the NSW government is serious about creating a safer sex work industry then implementing changes that risk returning it to the bad old days of corrupt police being in charge is not the way to go about it.

The Kirby Institute released a report this year that found that the decriminalisation of brothels is the best way to ensure worker health and safety. This position is also held by the UNAIDS. Furthermore, the Kirby Institute report warned of the risks of switching to a licensing system that include undermining sex workers’ access to health promotion programs and pushing indoor workers onto the streets.

The Wood Royal Commission’s interviews with sex industry staff documented cases of what was described as horrific violence. Since the decriminalisation of brothels, violence against brothel workers has dropped. Recent studies have found that rates of assaults of brothel workers in NSW are as low as 5% to 10%. It is not at all unreasonable to fear that violence against brothel workers will increase if the NSW government has its way.

In Victoria, where brothels are legal under a licensing scheme, it is estimated that 50% of brothels are run illegally. In Queensland the numbers are even worse — after 20 years of a licensing scheme being in place, less than 10% of brothels are licensed. It is clear that the licensing system has not resulted in a reduction of sex trafficking or organised crime involvement.

Instead it has created a two-tier system where most brothel workers have no legal protection, or access to their labour rights. This reduces worker access to health programs and their ability to work safely. Sex workers in New South Wales have a condom use rate of 99% and very low sexually transmitted infection rates. To introduce a licensing model would sacrifice not just the health of workers but the hard fought gains the sex industry has made in health and education programs.

Evidence from Victoria and Queensland shows that a licensing scheme is not the way to reduce human trafficking. Trafficking is not just a problem in the sex industry.

There are other industries with higher rates of trafficked labour. Of the 133 people referred to the Salvation Army Trafficked People in 2008, 36 were trafficked into sex work, although that this does not mean that trafficking should not be taken seriously.

Those in the sex industry who want their work to be safe and legal have put forward well-researched and feasible proposals for a long time. However, they are routinely overlooked in favour of solutions that feed moral panic about sex work. The reality is that these solutions have little practical benefit to those they are meant to be helping and all too often harm those very people.

To understand what real solutions are needed, we need to address what sex trafficking consists of. Sex trafficking in an umbrella term that covers things such as debt bondage (where sex workers engage with traffickers to enter the country illegally to work and then will have to pay off an exorbitant debt) through to someone being forced against their will to perform sexual services. Most sex trafficking cases in Australia are of debt bondage.

I do not make this distinction to try to take away from the seriousness and trauma of debt bondage, but to highlight that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to all sex trafficking. Increased legal avenues for sex workers to come to Australia would reduce instances of debt bondage. As an industry that is legal in all but two states, one would assume that there would be such legal avenues in place. However, the federal government has repeatedly refused to listen to suggestions by sex worker rights advocates to implement a working visa program for sex workers.

The NSW government doesn't care about the rights and safety of sex workers. If it did they would listen to us. These proposed changes are about winning “law and order” votes on the back of an already marginalised group of workers. If you would support workers in any other industry in their battle against unjust and dangerous laws, then you owe it to sex workers to support our fight against laws that will make our worker harder and reduce our safety.

[Clare Adams is a brothel-based sex worker in NSW.]

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