Wendy Lyon of Feminist Ire on a move by ICTU to deny sex workers a “worker” identity.
Earlier this month, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions did something even its critics may not have anticipated. It took part in a meeting aimed at advancing a campaign to deny certain workers – among the most marginalised in Irish society – the right to a “worker” identity. The meeting was announced in a tweet by the Turn Off the Red Light campaign, accompanied by a pronouncement that “Prostitution is not work”.
This position should concern anyone who looks to trade union bodies to defend access to labour rights. For if sex work is not work, then sex workers are not workers, and are not entitled to the rights that that status conveys. Surely the role of trade unions is to promote greater access to those rights, not to decide who is eligible for them?
ICTU’s stance puts it at odds with the International Labour Organisation, to which it is affiliated. While the ILO is officially neutral with regard to the legal status of sex work, it has explicitly stated that labour rights should apply to that industry. An example is its confirmation last year that sex workers are covered by its Recommendation concerning HIV and AIDS and the World of Work, 2010 (No. 200). This Recommendation, like many of the ILO’s, is stated to apply to “all workers working under all forms or arrangements, and at all workplaces, including persons in any employment or occupation”, and “all sectors of economic activity, including … the formal and informal economies”.
New Zealand, which decriminalised its sex industry in 2003, shows what labour rights for sex workers might look like in practice. Its Prostitution Reform Act explicitly protects sex workers in a number of ways:
- The right to insist on condom use (Section 9)
- The rights applying to workers under the Health and Safety in Employment Act (Section 10)
- The right to refuse any client or service, at any stage of the transaction (Sections 16 and 17)
The Act was drawn up with the input of sex workers, and the research into its impacts has reached remarkably positive conclusions. Most striking are these figures in a 2007 study by the Department of Health and General Practice at the University of Otago (Christchurch) :
Why wouldn’t any trade union see it as positive that so many people who earn their living in a traditionally unprotected sector would now feel that they have rights too? Why wouldn’t any trade union want them to have these rights?
Judging by ICTU’s submission to the Oireachtas committee considering the issue, the answer appears to be that it thinks the only acceptable way to “protect” sex workers is by getting them out of sex work. But to make this argument is to leave behind all those who, for whatever reason, cannot or will not leave the industry (and isn’t the whole Turn Off the Red Light campaign based on the premise that most people in it can’t leave?). It is also to veer uncomfortably close to the classic anti-worker refrain that anyone dissatisfied with their rights at work should just find another job.
The submission further suggests that most, if not all, sex workers are there due to “poverty, past history of abuse or limited life choices”. Even if we assume this to be the case – and there are certainly those who dispute it – it still does not explain why they should not have employment rights. In general, the lower the status attached to a job, the more likely it is that the person holding it has experienced at least one of those problems. And in general, those workers are recognised as being more in need of the protection of labour laws, not less. Nobody wants to be doing a full-time skilled job for €50 over the weekly jobseeker’s rate, either, but that’s never seen as a reason to deny them the status of “worker”.
ICTU’s position is fundamentally a moralistic one: it rejects rights for sex workers because it rejects sex work itself. This situation may well be without parallel, even for other jobs that many object to on moral or other grounds. Shell to Sea do not campaign against labour rights for those working on the Corrib pipeline. Anti-racist groups have raised concern about African nightclub toilet attendants, who do a job that virtually no one thinks there is any need for, but it is never suggested that they aren’t really “working” and don’t deserve recourse to employment law.
It is disturbing that ICTU seems to have reached this position without ever seeking input from sex workers themselves. Essentially, it has decreed that its own views on the rights and wrongs of prostitution should be determinative, rather than the wishes of those working in the industry. Perhaps Irish sex workers – unlike their counterparts in New Zealand, India, Kenya, and elsewhere – do only want assistance to “exit” and not the protections of labour law. But the only way to find this out is to actually engage with them and ask them directly. It is not the role of a trade union to exclude a whole category from the rights associated with “worker” status based on its leaders’ personal views of what that category should be entitled to. It is the role of the boss, and ICTU should not be playing it.
Latest posts by Wendy Lyon (see all)
- ICTU: Denying Sex Workers a Workers’ Identity - September 23, 2013
- Repression in the Name of Rescue: The Oireachtas Justice Committee’s Sex Work Proposals - July 10, 2013