Decriminalise sex work for safety

Motion passed at February Branch Committee of Lambeth UNISON, to go to National Delegate Conference

Conference notes that UNISON’s current policy on sex work, adopted in 2010 on the basis of a motion from women’s conference, is to support proposals which decriminalise the selling of sex acts while introducing a ‘sex buyers law’ criminalising those who purchase sex acts. 

Conference recognises that the great majority of sex workers are women.  Conference also recognises that a significant number of women sex workers identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender (LGBT).  There are also many gay, bisexual and trans sex workers who do not identify as women.  Sex work is an issue for the LGBT community.

Conference notes that national LGBT conference takes a different view to that of women’s conference, having adopted motions at several conferences which:

  1. Recognise that the criminalisation of any kind, including of buyers, increases the risks for sex workers and hinders the global fight against HIV and AIDS;
  2. Oppose the introduction of a sex buyers law;
  3. Reflect the view that sex workers are workers, who should have the same rights and protections as workers in other industries;
  4. Recognise the strong links internationally, particularly in Africa, Asia and Latin America, between LGBT organising, sex worker organising, the fight against HIV and improving health and social justice for people living with HIV and LGBT people.

Conference further notes there have been significant developments since 2010 including:

  • The World Health Organisation 2014 guidelines for helping to prevent the spread of HIV in the most-at-risk populations, including sex workers (the majority of who are women), transgender people, and men who have sex with men, recommended that countries decriminalise sex work, same sex behaviours, and non-conforming gender identities;
  • Amnesty International’s publication in May 2016 of its “Policy on state obligations to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of sex workers”, which includes advocating for the decriminalisation of all aspects of consensual adult sex work, alongside detailed research reports on these issues in Argentina, Hong Kong, Norway and Papua New Guinea. The Amnesty policy states that it “has been developed in recognition of the high rates of human rights abuses experienced globally by individuals who engage in sex work, a term that Amnesty only uses in regard to consensual exchanges between adults”;
  • The Amnesty research report on Norway provided substantial evidence that the ‘sex buyer law’ does not decriminalise sellers, as is often claimed, and details the extensive harm caused to women selling sex by the implementation of the law including forced evictions, deportations and denial of medical care, with Nigerian women particularly targeted;
  • The call for full decriminalisation of consensual adult sex work is also supported by many other organisations including UNAIDS, the World Health Organisation, the Global Alliance Against Traffick in Women, Anti Slavery International, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, and Human Rights Watch, and by sex workers organisations.
  • The recommendations in the July 2016 House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee interim report on its Inquiry into Prostitution that the criminalisation of sex workers in England and Wales should end, and that the government should immediately change existing legislation so that soliciting is no longer an offence and amend the laws on ‘brothel keeping’ so as to allow sex workers to share premises rather than risk working alone.
  • The rejection by the 2018 UNISON women’s conference of a motion “Nordic Model Now!” which called for women’s conference to affirm its policy of supporting the Nordic Model, a legal model based on decriminalising the selling of sex acts while introducing a ‘sex buyers law’ criminalising those who purchase sex acts.

Conference further notes that New Zealand decriminalised sex work in 2003. Since then, this has come to be known as the ‘New Zealand model’. The legislation recognises sex work as work, and it is therefore covered by employment law. Sex workers have the legal right to refuse any client for any reason at any point – the law treats sex workers consent as crucial

The New Zealand model has been praised by women’s rights organisations, human rights organisations, and international bodies such as the UN and the World Health Organisation as the best legal approach to protect the safety, rights, and health, of people who sell sex

There is no legal model anywhere in the world that has been shown to increase, or decrease, the number of people who sell sex

All that laws can change is whether people do sex work in dangerous conditions or in safer conditions

Conference recognises that decriminalisation is not about ‘encouraging’ sex work – it’s about the safety of people who sell sex. It also recognises that as a trade union we should be listening to the workers – to sex workers – and should not be calling for laws which put sex workers, including women and LGBT sex workers, at greater risk

Conference therefore recognises that UNISON should no longer call for the introduction of a ‘sex buyers law’

In addition, Conference notes that TUC Congress discussed sex work for the first time in 2017, when it debated a motion submitted by ASLEF and seconded by the GMB calling for the TUC to support full decriminalisation. The motion was defeated, but it has started a wider debate in the trade union movement on sex work. 

It therefore calls on the NEC to begin a dialogue with the National LGBT Committee, National Women’s Committee and other appropriate bodies within the union with a view to reviewing and advancing UNISON policy in this area.

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