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?