Labour4Decrim: Fighting for sex workers’ rights

We publish here a briefing paper sent us by grassroots campaign group Labour4Decrim, which fights for full decriminalisation of sex work and for sex workers’ unionisation and rights.

You can download the briefing as a nicely designed PDF here.

Labour4Decrim are concerned about the rights and safety of everyone who sells sex in the UK and at Labour Party conference 2018 will be launching their campaign for Labour to adopt the policy of full decriminalisation of sex work. 

Labour4Decrim are hosting a panel discussion at The World Transformed 2018: End the Criminalisation of Sex Work: Tuesday 1-2pm 25 September @ Black-E. Full details here.


Briefing Paper: LABOUR4DECRIM

We are a grassroots campaign group of Labour Party activists who are active in sex worker collectives, trade unions, feminist and human rights organisations. Our concern is the rights and safety of everybody who sells sex. People undertake sex work for a range of reasons, but most commonly sex work is a way to get by, same as in other work – a way to put food on the table.

Sex workers are increasingly visible in the labour movement. Sex workers organised recent Women’s Strikes demanding rights and safety for sex workers and for all workers doing precarious and often ‘feminised’ labour. Although this visibility is new, sex workers’ presence in these movements is not: they have always been there, often doing sex work on the side to supplement bad wages in the mainstream economy.

There is a contentious debate about the best way to address sex work. The options most frequently put forward are either decriminalisation — supported internationally by sex workers and many others — or the Nordic Model, also referred to as the ‘sex buyer law’, or an ‘end demand’ approach. The Nordic Model purports to decriminalise sex workers and criminalise clients and in doing so reduce the demand for prostitution and shrink the sex industry.

In reality, the Nordic model:

  • Undermines safety and gives clients more power over sex workers. France criminalised clients in 2016 and a two-year evaluation report found that 42 percent of sex workers are more exposed to violence (insults in the street, physical violence, sexual violence, theft, and armed robbery in the workplace) and that 38 percent have found it increasingly hard to demand use of condoms. The Norwegian government acknowledged that the Nordic model made the the sex industry “a buyer’s market”. As the client bears criminal risk, he can demand the worker meets him in a less safe place, demand unprotected sex and a lower price. This brings risks of violence and STIs/HIV, in addition to impoverishing already precarious workers. A social services report on the Swedish city of Malmo found that as a result of the law, “prostitutes who are still working in street prostitution experience a tougher existence”.
  • Does not decriminalise sex workers. Claims that under Nordic-model prostitution law, sex workers are supported and not subject to policing or criminalisation are not supported by the facts. Sex workers can be prosecuted for sharing premises or for street work. In Oslo in 2011, a sex worker was prosecuted for ‘brothel-keeping’ for sharing a flat with other workers, despite the judge agreeing that her primary motivation for sharing her space was safety. Amnesty International found that street-based sex workers in Norway were still being fined several years after the Nordic model had supposedly ‘decriminalised’ them. In France, municipal laws against street sex work have been retained, meaning street sex workers are still being arrested and fined. In Northern Ireland, the much-trumpeted ‘first arrest’ of a client was accompanied by the arrest of three sex working women sharing a flat.

Contrary to some claims the sex industry has not shrunk as criminalisation can never address the reasons people go into sex work, which is to get the money that they need to live their lives.

Decriminalisation, which was implemented in New Zealand in 2003, means that sex workers are able to work without threat of criminal sanctions. Criminal and administrative penalties on prostitution are repealed. Sex workers’ workplaces are regulated through employment law, enabling workers to hold their bosses to account and form trade unions.

Decriminalisation has been broadly successful:

  • Sex workers have more rights and power at work. A comprehensive five-year New Zealand government review found: no increase in prostitution; no increase in trafficking; sex workers more able to report violence and leave prostitution if they choose.  Since decriminalisation, over 90 percent of sex workers said they had additional employment, legal, health and safety rights. That includes street-based sex workers, of whom 90 per cent said they felt they had employment rights, and 96 percent said they felt they had legal rights.
  • Sex workers can assert their rights through labour law. A sex worker in New Zealand took her manager to court for sexual harassment – and won – with the judge commenting: ‘Sex workers are as much entitled to protection from sexual harassment as those working in other occupations’. Such a ruling would not be possible in a criminalised workplace.

Decriminalisation is sometimes presented as at odds with anti-trafficking measures – but it should be obvious that giving workers more rights is crucial to tackling exploitation. Research shows that less than 6 percent of migrant sex workers in the UK have been trafficked; many said they prefer working in the sex industry to the “unrewarding and sometimes exploitative conditions they meet in non-sexual jobs”.

Labour politicians and campaigners who want to support women leaving sex work should focus on addressing austerity cuts (86 percent of which have fallen on women). In towns and cities across the UK it is benefit sanctions and cuts to welfare that are one of the main reasons women start doing sex work.

Decriminalisation increases sex workers’ power in their interactions with clients, managers, police and landlords. It makes people safer. It reduces the transmission of HIV. It is for these reasons that decriminalisation is supported by human rights organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, UNAIDS, the World Health Organization, Sisters Uncut, and the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women. For more information, see

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