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RIGHTS: Sex Workers Ask to Be Seen as Workers

Stefania Bianchi

BRUSSELS, Oct 18 2005 (IPS) - A group of sex workers from across the European Union is demanding the same social rights as other employees, and calling for an end to “repressive policies” against prostitution.

Some 120 male and female sex workers from 23 countries met at the European Parliament Monday (Oct. 17) to urge the European Union (EU) to end discrimination against the sex industry.

“What we do is work and we want it recognised as that,” Ruth Morgan Thomas, a Scottish sex worker and organiser of the conference told media representatives Monday (Oct. 17).

Under the auspices of the Italian Socialist member of the European Parliament (MEP) Vittorio Emanuele Agnoletto, sex workers from the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE) discussed labour issues, migration and human rights. The committee is a Dutch-based lobby group of current and former prostitutes.

“We organised this conference in response to the increasingly repressive legislative policies and practices across Europe against sex workers and the sex industry,” said Morgan Thomas.

The sex workers say “repressive policies” on migration, public order and morality have led to the increasing vulnerability of sex workers. They insisted they were against all forms of human trafficking and exploitation.

“Anti-prostitution and anti-migration policies negatively affect the rights of sex workers, whereas increasing emphasis on citizen security, law and order and closing borders have impeded the growth of rights movements in general,” they said in their statement.

Camille Cabral, representing French sex workers, said it was time to end the stigma associated with the sex industry. “You shouldn’t hide yourselves, you shouldn’t be ashamed,” she said. “All societies should accept and give (the same) sort of statute to this profession as to any other.”

The ICRSE says regulating the sector would curb exploitation and boost prostitutes’ willingness to pay tax in return for rights and social protection.

“Many problems could be solved if sex workers were treated the same as any other labour issue,” Ana Lopes, a British-based sex worker originally from Portugal told media representatives.

The cause of the sex workers is being championed by Agnolleto, who endorsed the sex workers’ declaration. He says he will initiate a debate on the issue in the European Parliament.

“I believe this declaration is important not only for sexual workers, but it also could become very important for the European civil society,” he said.

But a conference hosted by the European Women’s Lobby (EWL), also at the European Parliament Monday, sought to develop policy and best practices against prostitution and trafficking in Europe.

“We oppose any move that would create the idea that sex work is normal work that your or my daughter would be ambitious enough to do when she’s 17 or 18,” said Mary McPhail, organiser of the conference.

McPhail argued that 98 percent of people involved in prostitution had become so engaged without any choice, and insisted that prostitution is fundamentally exploitative.

The EWL says the sex industry across Europe cannot be considered normal activity, because in many countries it is controlled by organised crime gangs.

“We do not agree with the definition of prostitution as sex work or as a profession,” Colette De Troy from the European Women’s Lobby told IPS Tuesday. She said promoting sex work as “normal” will not help solve problems such as trafficking and illegal immigration.

“We are convinced that policies should tackle the demand, which fuels the traffic, and measures should be provided to allow women, children, men or transgenders to exit prostitution,” she added.

Prostitution is legal in some EU states and tolerated in most European countries. In the Netherlands and the Czech Republic prostitution is licensed and regulated by the state, but in many European states the sex industry flourishes in the black market where women are trafficked from poor countries to work as prostitutes. Their passports are often stolen to prevent their escape from sex slavery.

The increase in trafficking from Eastern Europe to the European Union over the last three years has made tackling it a priority on the agenda of the British presidency of the bloc. A new European Commission proposal on combating trafficking is expected Oct. 19.

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