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Trafficking prevention - its time for action

By Elena Jeffreys - posted Thursday, 16 October 2008

History tells us that punitive approaches to sex work have never been successful. Yet there will be many lawyers wages paid out of the investment by the Victorian Crown into the criminal prosecution of a Melbourne brothel owner for slavery. Now that the case has been supported, the Victorian Crown will herd more cases into court. These cases are the result of years of surveillance, constant raids, and a forest of media that has mounted public pressure against the Asian brothel sector in Victoria. Migrant sex workers are the collateral damage in this morally charged war against sex.

Victoria previously led the way in Australia with the legalisation of the sex industry in the mid-80s. This followed community outrage over systemic police corruption and a lack of justice for the sex workers who were victims of crimes.

Street based sex workers were the only ones left out of these reforms - and are still criminalised - even after premium efforts by the Attorney General and Port Phillip Council in the late 1990s. The major problem that still hadn’t been shifted on the Victorian landscape is the inherent discrimination sex workers face, and this was displayed loud and proud by residents who blocked street sex work law reforms last decade.


All sex workers in Victoria are unprotected by anti-discrimination law. Sex workers in the licensed brothel sector face mandatory health testing which unnecessarily over regulates the industry and provides disincentives for compliance. The recently released national UNSW Laws and Sexual Health (LASH) Study has identified that Victorian sex workers’ conditions are worse than both their decriminalised (NSW) and criminalised (WA) counterparts.

Confidentiality for Victorian sex workers is like a leaky bucket, thanks to government mishandling of information. Sex workers are expected to register their name and work address for the public to see, without any privacy protection. This information was obtained by the Australian Tax Office at the behest of the Business Licensing Authority that would have preferred to remain in control of its most valuable asset - the private details of every independent sex worker in Victoria.

As the institutions of government continue to fail sex workers who are compliant with the complex regulations they face, and cannot protect sex workers who are, it is disappointing that alleged “trafficking” into the Asian brothel sector has provided a sensationalist distraction from these systemic legislative and regulatory shortfalls.

There is no visa for sex work in Australia. Thus migrant sex workers choose debt contracts as a means of coming to work in our country. The potentially exploitative outcomes of exclusionary immigration policies, and their direct link to trafficking vulnerabilities for migrant sex workers, were brought to the attention of authorities by sex worker organisations, including the Prostitutes Collective of Victoria, from the late 80s. Migrant sex workers demand that Australia fix the immigration system for sex workers. Twenty years of state and federal inaction in the protection of migrant sex workers has created a legal quagmire of moral posturing and gowned and wigged belly-button staring, while basic rights still remain out of reach for Victorian sex workers, including those who travel from other countries.

Recognition of sex work as legitimate work, civil protections, access to justice, anti-discrimination law, and scrapping of Victoria’s out-dated mandatory testing and registration all are ingredients to supporting sex workers. Access to a visa system that is fair and non-discriminatory is essential. Perhaps then we can honestly say that sex workers are accepted as members of the community, worthy of protections all the time, not just when acting as witnesses to high profile Crown prosecutions. These recognitions will ultimately pave the way to effective trafficking prevention and access to justice for all sex workers, regardless of a their language background, rather than punitive, authoritarian, expensive and conditional forced 'rescuing' of sex workers from their chosen workplace.

Promotions and champagne are on the menu for the lawyers and barristers involved in the recent High Court case. Meanwhile migrant sex workers are still waiting, after two decades of campaigning, for basic recognition of their rights as workers in our country. Victoria needs to stop the hypocrisy, forgo the headlines and bring sex workers out of second-class citizen status. That alone will end systemic injustices, both in the workplace and at the hands of the state.

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About the Author

Elena Jeffreys is an Anglo-Italian Australian based sex worker and PhD candidate at the University of Queensland Department of Political Science and International Studies. Elena is a former President of Scarlet Alliance, the Australian Sex Workers Association.

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