Posted: 26 September 2019
This article – an interview with Amina du Jour, Decrim Now activist and member of United Voices of the World union, featured in our Labour Party conference special magazine, which you can find in full here: https://www.labourfreemovement.org/lab19-magazine-from-the-labour-campaign-for-free-movement/
Decrim Now are calling on the UK government to support the full decriminalisation of sex work. For more on their work see: https://decrimnow.org.uk
Why do you and others in Decrim Now campaign for the decriminalisation of sex work – why is that important?
We support decriminalisation because the facts show that sex workers are generally better off under systems of decriminalisation, whether that’s migrant sex workers, people who are members of LGBT communities, sex workers from ethnic minority backgrounds – they tend to do better on various fronts when decriminalisation is implemented. We can compare that to the evidence we have regarding the Nordic model, which is the criminalisation of buying sex [the model adopted in Sweden]; legalisation in Germany and the Netherlands; and criminalisation [of selling sex] in [most of] America.
What aspects of sex workers’ working lives and conditions would be improved, specifically, if we were to decriminalise sex work in the UK?
We don’t see decriminalisation as a silver bullet, but as a foundation – a starting point for sex workers to be able to access resources and to be able to organise for better conditions. For example, British law now prohibits sex workers working together for safety, prohibits brothels and third parties. From the outside this sounds like its intended to protect people from human trafficking but in real life most of the time this is implemented to penalise sex workers, usually migrant sex workers from Europe who want to work together for safety. The current laws allows you to work alone, in a flat, by yourself – or you can break the law and work in a brothel. Or you can work with your friend and both of you would be penalised for that. So we’re calling for decriminalisation for our safety, the safety of sex workers – as a stepping stone…
Most of these laws are used to penalise women who come to the UK from Eastern Europe. They claim to be self-employed – which they are because [certain types of] sex work is legal in Britain, but they are being told by the Home Office that its not a legitimate field of work. They’re in this grey area. So decriminalisation of sex work would allow it to be like any other industry. It would still be regulated, but it would allow workers engaged in the industry to organise themselves, benefit from workers’ rights and demand improved conditions – just like if they were a plumber or in any other waged job.
Can you tell me about the work you do with United Voices of the World union?
At the moment we’re focusing on strippers. That’s because at the moment a brothel is technically not a legal workplace, so it’s easier to establish legal precedent if we start by organising in legal workplaces and then move on to workplaces that aren’t legal at the moment. We work with the strippers’ union, organising mainly in strip clubs in London. It’s been really good. We’ve been demanding sick pay, outstanding payment from employers or clubs, challenging house fees and unionising strippers who are facing extremely exploitative working conditions.
A common argument often made is that border guards, restrictions on immigration and so on can help prevent trafficking of sex workers. Is there anything you would like to say in response to that?
I think a lot of the trafficking rhetoric is fuelled by emotion, rather than facts. Research by the Global Network of Sex Workers Projects shows that 94% of migrant sex workers working in the UK have chosen to come here. Trafficking in British law, as well as international law, is a very widely defined term, which can sometimes be misleading. I’ll use a hypothetical scenario: I’m a sex worker in Britain. My friend is a sex worker in France, and she’s from Romania. She tells me that in France things aren’t very good right now, and I tell her “it’s good in England, I can help you get some work” and “you can live with me, just pay me back or pay me some rent”. Technically, under current law, I’ve just trafficked this person.
Anyway, I don’t think having a stricter border regime helps victims of trafficking. If someone is found to have been trafficked, very often the police take their money and then they are deported back to their home country. They are not given any real support, as you would expect a victim of a crime would be given. They’re treated like criminals.
What can Labour Party members do to support you and the Decrim Now campaign?
We would like Labour Party members to get in touch with their local MPs and ask for their stance on the decriminalisation of sex work, to support motions to their local parties in favour of decriminalisation, and to educate themselves and their fellow party members! Most people in the UK don’t understand the law. Labour Party members tend to be in favour of the Nordic Model, which criminalises clients – which has been implemented in Northern Ireland, Sweden, France and has had real-life, devastating impacts on sex workers, in particular those who are migrants and BME.
In October 2016, the Metropolitan Police raided six massage parlours in Chinatown, London. Police told the media that they were “bringing to justice those who seek to profit from the exploitation of vulnerable people”. The police seized cash from women’s lockers; made 24 arrests (none of which were for trafficking offences; 17 of which were for immigration offences), and ultimately deported 13 people, mostly women…
The deportation of undocumented or insecurely documented migrants, whether trafficked or not, has the effect of producing conditions which lead to trafficking. When undocumented migrants are justifiably fearful of attracting the attention of the state, they are unable to seek recourse for exploitation, and are intensely vulnerable to harm.
2018: Ms L from Romania was arrested and charged for loitering and soliciting and taken from the court to Yarl’s Wood IRC. Ms L faced deportation for being a “persistent offender” because between April 2017 and June ’18, she was convicted six times of loitering and soliciting. She had fled Romania because of domestic violence and was working to support her two children and cover health costs for her sister and mother who were both unwell. As a victim of violence, she should not have been detained as Home Office guidelines say vulnerable women shouldn’t be held in detention.