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LABOUR-VENEZUELA: Women’s Groups Split on Union for Prostitutes

Estrella Gutierrez

CARACAS, Feb 11 1998 (IPS) - Women’s organizations in Venezuela are divided over the attempts of a group of male and female sex workers to form a trade union.

Prostitution is outlawed in Venezuela and the president of the National Women’s Council, Maria Bello, therefore says she is against approving any union for sex workers as prostitution is not a legitimate occupation. The same argument has been used by the president of the National Institute for Minors, Nancy Montero, who considers any union for sex workers to be “incompatible with the Constitution and other laws.”

Brigette Pernia, director of the Association of Women and Welfare and Mutual Help (AMBAR), however, maintains the union initiative is aimed at regulating work that does exist and, in many ways, is regulated by the Ministry of Health. AMBAR has been the main force in promoting the growth of unions in the metropolitan district of caracas.

A recent Seminar on Sexual Exploitation focussed on the debate that has grown since last Nevember when a group of male and female prostitutes petitined the government to approve formation of the “Union of Men and Women Sex Workers and Associates of the Federal District and the State of Miranda (UNTRASEX).”

The petition was handed to the Labor Inspection Office which, until now, has remained silent on the issue. The Workers’ Union of Venezuela, the largest in the country, meanwhile declared it had no plans to incorporate UNTRASEX as an affiliate, should it be approved.

The Ministry of Labor went on record last July as guaranteeing the rights of all workers to belong to a union, without exceptions. But Minister of Labor, Maria Govea, has declined to give an opinion on the question of a union for sex workers. She would be the definitive arbiter in the dispute between those in favor and those against unionization, should the Inspection Office rule one way or another.

The campaign against UNTRASEX is being led by the Coalition Against the Traffic in Women, whose Executive Director Janyce Raymond, of the United States has stressed that Venezuela would be violating United Nations conventions if it acknowledged prostitution as a form of work.

At the seminar, Venezuelan Zoraida Ramirez, the Coalition’s vice-president for Latin America, noted that Uruguay is the only country in the region where prostitution is legal. There, a union of prostitutes is affiliated with the Central Workers’ Union, and on several occasions has demanded admission into the International Labor Organization (ILO) “in the name of the entire continent.”

Ramirez acknowledges that the movement to protect sex workers is gaining force in the region as they could enjoy human rights like everyone else. In Brazil, Mexico and Dominican Republic there are also initiatives to legalize the sector.

Raymond says that if unionization efforts succeeds in Venezuela, it could endanger human rights in general, and women’s rights in particular, because “the recognition of prostitution as work will only mean that sexual exploitation is legal, legitimate and acceptable.”

She argues that the legalization of UNTRASEX will only benefit the sex industry, which will exploit women even more, while governments will feel less pressured to create dignified and decently paid jobs for women.

Patricia Mejias, a lawyer for AMBAR, says that the deadline for the decision of the Labor Inspection Office on the legalization of UNTRASEX is Feb 25 and, becayuuse the law is very restrictive in terms of cases in which the right to unionization can be denied, she was hopeful of the outcome.

According to records of the Ministry of Health, at least 350,000 Venezuelan women work as prostitutes, but that figure could be higher. AMBAR says that all its members are registered because it is one of the requirements of the organization.

Ramirez refutes the arguments put forth by AMBAR that their rejection is due to “moralistic” rather than “ethical” reasons. The Coalition, formed in 1989, has proved that legalising prostitution foments the traffic in women and sexual exploitation, she maintains.

She said that the Coalition is engaging in its struggle in Venezuela from a gender perspective, that is, from a point of view that promotes the equality of women and men in all biological aspects.

AMBAR’s Brigette Pernia, however, says her organization wants to improve on a concrete reality: “We seek to protect ourselves from abuses by the police and the clients, and to be able to access social programs to improve the quality of our lives.”

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