WestEnd Extra: ‘Law change could save sex workers from exploitation’

English Collective of Prostitutes report features women in ‘red-light area of Soho’ who were subject to police raids

08 February, 2019 — By Tom Foot

CAMPAIGNERS have warned it is “dangerous and irresponsible” to criminalise sex workers at a time when exploitation, unequal and poverty pay are forcing women away from lawful work.

The English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) this week published the findings of a report – What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Job Like This? – that was launched at the House of Commons.

It said: “Sex work is a resistance to the standard of grinding poverty imposed on us. Considering that, the question is not why women go into sex work, but why more women don’t go into sex work.”

The investigation compared typically low-paid women’s jobs, such as kitchen or cleaning positions, with sex work, finding that in the legal jobs women are routinely denied basic labour rights, and face discrimination and abuse. It slams critics who “refuse to compare prostitution with other work because it is about sex”.

In evidence given to the ECP, former stripper Nickie Roberts said: “Working in crummy factories for disgusting pay was the most degrading and exploitative work I ever did in my life … All I can think of is drudgery. Yet as I say, it’s expected of working-class women that they deny themselves everything … Why should I have to put up with a middle class feminist asking me why I didn’t ‘do anything – scrub toilets, even?’ than become a stripper?”

The ECP is campaigning against legislation that criminalises some forms of sex work. Despite the Home Affairs Select Committee calling for the law to be changed in 2016, nothing has been done. Decriminalising sex work would make it safer for women and allow for effective unionisation of the workforce, while also making it easier to report abuse.

The ECP states that if sex work was legalised, “bosses” who pay less than a minimum wage “could be prosecuted under gangmasters legislation”, or taken to an employment tribunal.

The investigation included women working “the red-light area of Soho”, who were subject to police raids in 2012.

The report said: “They gave evidence to say that they were working independently, found out about the job from a friend, they would work, could turn down clients and – crucially – far from being controlled by a maid, they wanted to work with her because she helped protect them from attack.”

After the select ­committee called for a change in legislation, the minister for Preventing Abuse, Exploitation and Crime, Karen Bradley, said: “We need to ensure the law enables the police and others to ­tackle these harms, and target those who exploit vulnerable people involved in prostitution.”

The report’s authors are submitting their findings to the Centre for Gender and Violence Research at the University of Bristol, which has been commissioned by the government to research the nature and extent of the UK sex industry.

The ECP’s report author, Niki Adams, said: “The criminalisation of sex work cuts sex workers off from the ways other workers have found to organise to improve their working conditions.

“Even basic protections such as the ability to work with others are denied to sex workers, let alone the right to join a trade union and organise collectively, go on strike and protest against our work when it is exploitative and abusive.

“It [the report] highlights the urgent need for a living wage across the board so that no one is driven into prostitution by poverty, and for decriminalisation so sex workers also have rights as workers.”

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