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Queensland sex workers say outdated laws leave many unsafe and reluctant to report crime

3 Nov 2021 19:11:00
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Queensland sex workers (Australia) are calling for urgent changes to laws that leave them hesitant to report crimes.

Key points:

  1. Queensland’s sex work legislation was referred to the law reform commission last night
  2. Workers say current laws criminalise basic safety strategies and allow for “excessive” police powers
  3. Advocates say current laws create a barrier for sex workers to report crimes

Brisbane sex worker Kim has no shortage of sobering stories about the gross mistreatment his friends in Queensland’s sex work community have faced over the years.

As a multilingual man, Kim is often called on by Asian sex workers with limited English when problems arise, to translate between workers and their clients, or with police.

He said he had fielded several calls over the past decade from friends in a panic after being “choked to near death” or robbed during a service by the odd “bad client”.

“If you ask any independent sex worker, ‘Have you ever been assaulted by a customer?’ 100 per cent they will say yes,” Kim said.

In Queensland, the majority of the sex work industry is made up of independent workers who choose to work alone, rather than in one of the 30 licensed brothels across the state.

While many prefer to work alone, Kim said if workers were given the option to legally work in pairs to feel safer on the job, it would see a major reduction in assaults on workers.

“If a person thinking of committing an assault can see there’s a person in another room or on site, most likely they will retreat,” he said.

Queensland’s sex industry is home to a labyrinth of complex laws that are tightly regulated by police.

The strict regulation stems from the 1989 Fitzgerald Inquiry, which uncovered decades of police corruption linked to the sex work industry.

While it is legal to be a sex worker in Queensland, many are criminalised by what worker advocates call the most “draconian and outdated” laws in the country.

This includes being required to work in different rooms of the same hotel, and forbidding contact with a colleague after a booking, even as a safety check, as well as banning certain language from advertisements.

“People who choose to do this job should be treated fairly, but they’re not in this society,” Kim said.

“These outdated laws make authorities feel they can take advantage of this industry.”

‘Second rate citizens’

Queensland Attorney-General Shannon Fentiman has referred the state’s sex work legislation to the Queensland Law Reform Commission.

Shannon Fentiman

She said that the “majority” of sex work in Queensland happened illegally and a proper regulatory framework was needed to keep sex workers and the community safe.

“It’s really important that workers in Queensland, no matter what industry they’re in, don’t have to choose between working safely and working legally,” Ms Fentiman said.

“That’s what sex workers have told us — that the current laws criminalise their safety strategies.

“The government has referred this issue to the Queensland Law Reform Commission to look at decriminalising this industry and putting in place safeguards.”

The Attorney-General said the move would bring Queensland into line with “most of the states”.

“This is something that most other jurisdictions have now done,” she said.

In February, Ms Fentiman announced she would begin the process of legislative change by June.

In 2019, the Queensland government also committed to law reform for the sex industry, but nothing materialised.

Janelle Fawkes from decriminalisation advocacy group Respect Inc said workers had been “waiting a very long time for change” and were “tired of the many promises”.

“We’ve had enough of our rights being undermined by laws that criminalise our safety strategies,” Ms Fawkes said.

“Sex workers are treated as second class citizens with less rights and access to justice than most people.”

She called for an end to “predatory” police tactics and for sex workers to be given industrial rights, access to occupational health and safety, and other basic protections available to workers in any other industry.

“It’s not a big ask,” she said.

Barriers to reporting crime

Ms Fawkes said many sex workers felt more comfortable having another sex worker on site “particularly in situations when someone might be representing themselves as a client but their intent is violence or robbery”.

“Having someone nearby who knows where we are, what time our booking is finished, who we can check in with to let them know that we’re okay – that’s a basic safety approach that should be available to workers,” she said.

“Assaults against sex workers absolutely happen in Queensland and current laws create a barrier to report that crime.”

Ms Fawkes said workers are sometimes targeted by perpetrators who know they are unlikely to report crimes.

“The point is that if we were to experience violence, we need the opportunity to report that crime and we should be able to expect that police will take that seriously,” she said.

“Right now, under the current laws, that is not what happens.”

She said she hoped any future legislative reforms would spark an overhaul in “excessive” police powers over the industry, which allowed officers to entrap workers by posing as clients.

Advocates say such tactics have led to the targeting of migrant women and a widespread distrust of police among workers.

“There seems to be a fantasy in Queensland that police need additional powers in order to protect sex workers from vulnerability or exploitation,” Ms Fawkes said.

“Any assertion that the powers police have are needed to protect sex workers is completely untrue.”

A turning tide

Experts and advocates have long been calling for the state’s laws to be brought in line with other jurisdictions.

While Queensland has made little progress in improving workers’ rights, other states are in the process of decriminalising aspects of the industry.

Sex work was decriminalised in NSW in 1995, while Victoria is in the midst of a major legislative review and other jurisdictions have made moves to ease laws.

“The NT government has moved forward to completely decriminalise sex work in the time we’ve been waiting and the Victorian government has now announced publicly its intention to decriminalise sex work,” Ms Fawkes said.

With several inquiries underway, including the anti-discrimination review, the vilification and hate crimes review and the women’s justice taskforce review, Ms Fawkes said she hoped Queensland would reach a major turning point in the improvement of workers’ rights.

In a statement, the Queensland Police Service (QPS) said it was committed to protecting the safety of sex workers, but was also obligated to investigate offences against legislation, which includes illegal prostitution.

“The QPS is committed to disrupting organised crime and working with its law enforcement partners to detect those responsible for committing organising crime which involves sex workers, including sexual servitude,” the statement said.

“The QPS receive reports from community members and the Prostitution Licensing Authority relating to unlawful prostitution and investigations into those reports are undertaken across the state aimed at ensuring compliance with legislation.”

Cover photo: Carly Nichol, Janelle Fawkes and Joe Q from #DecrimQLD

Article first published on portal www.abc.net.au

By Phoebe Hosier

Posted Sat 28 Aug 2021 at 2:03amSaturday 28 Aug 2021 at 2:03am, updated Mon 30 Aug 2021 at 3:40am