Posts By Wendy Lyon

ICTU: Denying Sex Workers a Workers’ Identity


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?

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Repression in the Name of Rescue: The Oireachtas Justice Committee’s Sex Work Proposals

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Wendy Lyon of Feminist Ire on the barely noticed draconian measures recommended by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality to be included in the forthcoming legislation to criminalise the purchase of sex.

Last month, the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality announced its support for legislation to criminalise the purchase of sex. While this received some media coverage, little notice was taken of the related recommendations put forward simultaneously by the Committee – some of which are frankly draconian. These include the following: 

  • “An offence of recklessly permitting a premises to be used for the purposes of prostitution”. Although a sex worker who operates alone out of a premise is committing no crime under either the present or proposed legislation, this would effectively criminalise indoor commercial sex by penalising a landlord who fails to act against it. According to a report commissioned by the City of Oslo, a similar provision in Norway’s penal code (enforced under the ominously-named “Operation Homeless”) has led to the eviction of sex workers from their flats, and makes them less likely to contact police about crimes committed against them lest the police then threaten their landlords. It has also led to the racial profiling by landlords of “nationality groups associated with prostitution”, who now find it difficult to rent premises and must depend on third parties to secure accommodation for them. 
  • “power for An Garda Síochána to have disabled or vested in them any telephone number in use in the State that is suspected on reasonable grounds of being used for the purposes of prostitution”. This provision could cut off sex workers’ access to communication by phone – which would affect them in all aspects of their life, not merely their sex work activity. (While many sex workers use one phone for personal calls and one phone for business, it’s unlikely the Gardaí could easily distinguish between the two unless they were prepared to listen in to all calls made or received by a suspected sex worker – a civil liberties breach reminiscent of the Snowden revelations.) Denying sex workers the right to use telephones could also have adverse effects for their safety, by making it impossible for them to use “ugly mugs” schemes that alert them to dangerous clients, or preventing them calling for help if attacked. 
  • “that the accessing of web sites – whether located in the State or abroad – that advertise prostitution in the State should be treated in the same way as accessing sites that advertise or distribute child pornography”. Leaving aside the question of whether it is appropriate to treat seeking out sex from an at least potentially consenting adult as comparable to seeking out abuse of a child, this proposal makes no distinction between those who seek out sex and those who advertise it. Thus, sex workers themselves could be liable to prosecution (and presumably placement on the sex offenders’ registry) by accessing these sites for the purpose of advertising. Outreach health and social service workers who engage with sex workers through these sites, as well as sex industry researchers, would also be affected. It goes without saying that this proposal would require a significant expansion of the apparatus already in place to monitor Irish internet usage. 

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