The controversy of whether “sex work” can be defined and treated as real work or not is one that evokes a lot of emotion and sentiments. This is not surprising because the answer to this will determine whether or not this area of “Work” deserves to be acknowledged and given as much legal and social protection and recognition as any other type of work recognized under the auspice of labour laws.
It cannot be denied that “sex workers”, like them or hate them, provide a service. Since prostitution is commonly referred to as the oldest profession, sex work is a service as old as humankind. With the advent of globalization, internet dating, chat rooms, cyber-sex etc, the world’s touted oldest profession has not been left behind in modernizing its trade and services to keep up with the ever changing technology; dynamism is indeed the name of the game. In today’s world, a sex worker is no longer just the woman in skimpy red dress and high heels, lurking at street corners in the middle of the night looking for a customer. Sex workers now include prostitutes, porn actors and actresses, chat room/telephone sex providers, escorts, gigolos etc.
However, like all work, especially in this era of neo–globalization and privatisation of anything that generate profits, prostitutes in many cases do not own their bodies anymore, many are not really in a position to negotiate the prices for their services. The big lords, hotel owners, club owners, chat room owners, internet warlords are now the real employer of sex workers’ labour. The money bags have the money to run the business, employ women and in a growing number of cases men too, to render sexual services, they act as the sub contractors, in fact, it is just another stage of pimping.
‘IF YOU HAVE A BOSS, YOU NEED A UNION” is a popular slogan in Labor movement. It is increasingly obvious that sex workers are in most cases employed by other big time business operators, who like many employers, are basically concerned with profit and not necessarily the welfare of their employees. Even in cases where sex workers are their own bosses, instances of police brutality and harassment abound. Policemen have been known to extort sex workers, demand for cuts from their earnings, deny them protection, rape and torture them; in fact, sex workers are subjected to all sorts of indignities and degrading treatment when arrested.
In Nigeria, it is a common occurrence for policemen to raid brothels, clubs or local joints to arrest young women, especially female students on the suspicion of prostitution. To the policemen, the evidence of the prostitution charge lies in the way the women are dressed, their physical appearance, if they were smoking, drinking alcohol, the company they keep or just the mere fact that they were in that environment at an ‘ungodly’ hour.
Many women arrested in such circumstances are often tortured, extorted, blackmailed, raped and assaulted. In an effort to protect their identity and secure their freedom, these young women would do anything to please their torturers. Sometimes they are forced to confess to crimes they never committed and in many cases, are forced to perform sexual favours to gain their freedom. Of course, this action of the police is sexist, a violation of so many fundamental human rights and a restriction on the right of women to move freely in the country.
It is however interesting to note that the over-zealousness of the police is never extended to elitist clubs. Sex workers, who work for and provide services to the elites, enjoy a sort of coded protection. However the protection is only valid for as long as the boss is pleased, any disagreement or rancor could lead to withdrawal of that protection. Therefore the power to negotiate the terms and conditions of service is tacitly taken away from the vulnerable sex workers.
Also, sex workers are often looked at as disease carriers, a mobile carrier of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. While there is no gainsaying that exposure to many sexual partners without protection increases the risk of contacting a sexually transmitted disease, it is also important to note that the client could be as guilty if not more guilty than the service provider therefore it is important to involve and educate the clients too on the need to practice safer sex. It is important to have a holistic approach to this subject in order to curb sexually transmitted diseases.
Sex workers must be accorded the respect they deserve and seen as stakeholders who can contribute meaningfully to creating awareness about HIV/AIDS and help curb its spread. We must also recognize that sexual health and well being of sex workers are also important.
The stigmatization and consequent exploitation of sex workers would be minimized if sex work is accorded its recognition as a bonafide job; a real job which has its challenges, rights and protections under the law like every other job.
Criminalization of sex-work in many countries and jurisdictions makes it difficult to create a safe, enabling environment and workplace for sex workers. The continued criminalization of sex-work, rather than serves as a deterrent has only succeeded in exposing sex workers to violence, intimidation, harassment and exploitation.
As was said in the Wolfenden Committee report of 1957, what two adults do in the privacy of their rooms is no business of the law. Decriminalization of sex work would make it easier to organize sex workers, improve their working conditions, curb exploitation and protect their rights and accord them the dignity in labour every worker deserves.
Recognizing sex work and organising sex workers within mainstream labour movement is a task not just for the unions but one that must jointly be carried out by both the trade unions and sex workers. Sex workers must be ready to organise themselves from within, they must be prepared to approach unions that are capable of meeting their needs and willing to accept them as full members with all the rights accorded members.
Trade unions on their part must be ready to live up to its primary duties, which is organising workers and protecting their rights. In this time when the labour movement is concerned about dwindling membership mainly due to global economy down turn, trade unions should look towards organising this untapped membership.
Sex workers have bosses in many cases, they work under hazardous conditions, and sometimes under very demeaning circumstances, they need protection from dangerous clients, overzealous policemen, and even the larger society.
Organising sex workers would also give them the opportunity to build their capacity to negotiate their own services and contracts, educate and empower them enough for them to make a true choice or at least give them a chance to really have a choice.
No one should be forced to be a sex worker; it should be voluntarily chosen. Unfortunately, our economy reality has restricted the power to freely choose our profession, however it is still imperative that conditions of work in this profession is subjected to international labour standards. Sex workers should not be abandoned just because they happened to be on the wrong side of a questionable law.
The key word is CHOICE and an ENABLING/EMPOWERING environment to make a CHOICE. Many choose ‘prostitution’ or what I’d rather refer to as ‘Commercial Sex Work’ to survive the brutal economy. Just the same way many women and men choose to enter into Marriage unions or relationships for economy reasons and same way many migrants are forced to marry or enter into contractual sexual relationships for a green card or entry visa. Mutual Adult choices that harm no one should be respected.
We should all stand up against FORCED commercial sex work, FORCED LABOUR anywhere, anyhow should be condemned. Persons that have chosen sex work whether out of economic circumstances or just because they love it should be accorded all respect and protection, not pity.
Commercial sex workers should not be denied workers’ rights because of societal stigmatization and moral judgments. They are adults, have made their choices and need not explain to a third party why they made their choice. Decriminalization can help minimize violence, sex trafficking and exploitation of sex workers and a UNION would give them the representation many other workers enjoy.
Employment CHOICES, whether made out of economic frustration, lack of choice or real passion for the profession must be respected. Sex workers do not have to be viewed as people who need help, especially when they are in the profession voluntarily. Not everyone loves their jobs, including commercial sex workers. In almost all profession, you will find people who truly loathe their jobs but are constraint to stay in the jobs because it pays the bills. So next time someone says “but prostitutes don’t love their jobs”, well ask the person if they truly love their jobs? Also, not loving your job is not a reason for the society to criminalize or stigmatize your chosen profession.
Some sex workers are in the profession because, believe it or not, they have a passion for it, many are there because of limited choice but for whatever reasons they are in the profession, RESPECT is the key word, not PITY and certainly not moral judgment.
Sex workers while building their alliances with labour movements, must also build links with social movements that will protect their rights and interests. They should build alliances with liberal women organisations, human rights organisations which in some cases also help provide legal services to allies and of course they should work closely with World Social Forum.
Social movements on their part must continue to demand for a better world, where the oppressed in the society can rise above their oppression, where poverty will not be the motivating factor behind sex work, where people can truly decide what type of work they want to do, be it providing medical service or providing sex service and have their choice equally respected.
It is indeed interesting that some unions have already started organising sex workers and admitting them into their unions while some sex workers have also started organising themselves. In Europe, America and Asia, tentative steps to organise sex workers have been taken by unions and organisations like the Karnataka Sex workers union Bangalore, International union of sex workers, London, AMMAR, an organisation of sex workers in Argentina, CTA, an Argentine trade union, FNV union confederation in Netherlands and UNITE. It is important to build on these developments in order to reach out to many vulnerable and oppressed people in this work who otherwise would not have any valid spokesperson or means of channeling their grievances or opportunity of having their voices heard in the society.
Trade unions in Africa should also try to represent this group of workers, who most often, work in the most demeaning conditions. Discrimination has no place in trade unionism, the interests of the sex workers must be protected, their voices must be heard and their concerns taken on board. Unions should not just be speaking for sex workers but must also let sex workers speak for themselves from within the unions.
In conclusion, we must bear in mind that organising sex workers itself is not about promoting the sex trade or sex services, it is about PROTECTING the rights of those who either out of choice or no choice find themselves working as sex workers.
Trade unions cannot and should not discriminate on which category of workers they offer their services to. Workers of the world have always tried to unite against all forms of slavery, freely chosen sex work is not slavery and where stifling environment encourages exploitation of this vulnerable group, union machinery should start working to defend the rights of these workers irrespective of status, class, color or gender.