Sex workers demand access to justice as workers – through labour rights – rather than through victimhood.
This point was raised by Marjan Wijers, University of Essex, and ran as a red thread through the special session on ‘Towards decent work for sex workers’ organised at the 8th Conference of the Regulating for Decent Work Network. This discussion of sex workers’ rights at the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Geneva, Switzerland emerged from the ESWA Research Network (ESWORN). It was organised and chaired by ISS faculty Karin Astrid Siegmann.
In her opening remarks, Siegmann characterised the panel as a logical follow-up to policy and academic discussions on rights and respect for informalised and feminised groups of workers such as those employed in home-based and domestic work. Despite the large number of workers involved, however, sex workers and their labour rights have by and large been absent from international and national labour rights fora.
This absence also came to the fore in ISS PhD student María Inés Cubides Kovacsics’ panel contribution. In her presentation on 'Sex Workers’ everyday security in the Netherlands and the impact of COVID‐19', she made visible the mismatch between the regulatory focus on crime prevention and public health issues in the sex industry, while sex workers themselves also demand non-discriminatory access to safe workplaces and the guarantee of their labour rights, including effective grievance mechanisms.
In the context of online platforms’ employer-like power, Rebecca Rose Nocella, University of Reading, argued in her paper on ‘Testing the employment status of online pornography in times of crisis: Adult content creators as workers’ that adult content creators should be empowered through a clear legal status. That would enable them to navigate times of emergency instead of falling through the cracks of social security like they did during the Covid-19 crisis.
Discussant Thierry Schaffauser, sex worker, activist in the French Syndicat du Travail Sexuel (STRASS) and trade unionist highlighted that Lilith Brouwers’ (Leeds University) paper on 'From precarity to hyper-precarity: Effects of third party and workplace criminalisation of sex workers’ showed how criminalisation of sex workers' – implemented in the name of sex workers’ 'protection' - in fact means direct criminalisation of sex work and that: '[…] criminalisation is not helping us. On the contrary, it makes it impossible to access labour rights, it makes it impossible even to call the police!'
In response to an ISS alumna’s question from the audience - Andi Cipta Asmawaty is now Labour Programme Officer with the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development – about the global nature of the issues raised in Marjan Wijers’ presentation about 'Understanding and assessing exploitation in sex work: Working on a Sex Worker Exploitation Index', Schaffauser pointed out that it is actually sex worker movements in the global South that are leading the way regarding mobilisation for sex workers’ rights. For instance, the sex worker movement in India is huge, while Argentina’s sex worker union Asociación de Mujeres Meretrices de Argentina (Ammar) is an example of how sex worker movements can be integrated into the mainstream labour movement.
These organisations’ strength and determination give hope that the sex worker movement might act as a lever to make their rights part of the conversation at the ILO and beyond and – ultimately – translate into real entitlements.
This article was originally published by Erasmus University Rotterdam's International Institute of Social Studies.