Note on the International Sex Workers’ Movement (Dan Gallin, 2003)


[pullquote]The European Seminar on Organizing in the Informal Economy met in Soesterberg (Netherlands) from January 13-15, 2003. It was co-sponsored by the FNV and the ETUC and organized by the FNV and IRENE, with participation from WIEGO (1). This article was first published in August 2003.[/pullquote]

A pre-meeting was organized on January 12 by IRENE for the participants from Central and Eastern Europe (15 participants from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Romania and Serbia). In the afternoon, this group visited Amsterdam and in the course of this visit met with De Rode Draad (Red Thread), the Dutch sex workers’ organization.

The following note is principally based on the information received in this meeting, as well as an interview with Sietske Altink, a spokesperson for De Rode Draad, on January 16, and information subsequently received from Zi Teng, Hong Kong (see below) and from other sources. It is not intended to be a comprehensive report but a summary overview. The information is still fragmentary and incomplete, and may be partly outdated by new developments. Because of time constraints, not all facts could be properly researched and checked but they reflect reality to the best of the author’s knowledge.

Thanks to Sietske Altink (De Rode Draad, Amsterdam), Elaine Lam (Zi Teng, Hong Kong), Mabel Au (Committee for Asian Women, Bangkok) and Marie-Jo Glardon (Aspasie, Geneva) for valuable information and advice.


History. Collective action not to speak of trade union organization among sex workers is a new development, of the last thirty years or so (2). The first demonstration of sex workers in Europe defending their rights appears to have been the occupation of the Saint-Nizier church in Lyon on June 2, 1975. The first sex workers’ organizations to be formed were COYOTE in the US (in 1973) and AMEPU in Uruguay (in 1982), but most sex workers’ organizations were formed in the 1990s. The first international sex workers’ conference was held in 1985 (3) and the second (Second Whores’ World Congress, at the EU Parliament in Brussels) in 1986. The first European conference of sex workers and welfare workers focussing on health issues (Health and the Sex Industry Symposium, Edinburgh) was held in 1994 with participants from over 30 countries. A sex workers’ conference with a rights agenda, with participation from ten Asian countries and the US, met in Bangkok in November 2000; an international meeting also took place in Taiwan the same year and another conference, also with a rights agenda, with participation from twelve Asian countries and territories, Australia, Germany and the Netherlands, met in Hong Kong in June 2001 (see below). Regional conferences also met in Central and South America.

The Sexworkers’ Initiative Group in the Netherlands (SIGN), a network of sex workers’ organizations and allies, is currently organizing a European Sex Workers’ Meeting for Spring 2004 (contact address: .

The question immediately arises: why now? After all, prostitution is popularly assumed to be the “oldest profession” (4), in any case as old as organized urban society. The beginnings of modern workers’ organizations reach back to the middle of the 19th century, whereas sex workers have only begun to organize in the last twenty years or so. The obstacles to organization in sex work (social stigma and repression, a culture of individualism) have not changed significantly over time. What, then, are the new factors that have intervened to account for this development? Three can easily be identified: the impact of the women’s movement and of feminism, the increased migration flows related to globalization, and the HIV/AIDS issue. There may be other, partially related factors, such as the opening up of the labour movement (in some areas) to new forms of organization and to new constituencies.

The Impact of Feminism

The impact of feminism on sex work has been contradictory. The abolitionist tendency in feminism has condemned prostitution as intrinsically exploitative and oppressive of women and has sought its prohibition. This approach has prevailed in France and in Sweden, where prostitution has recently been outlawed. Other feminist tendencies, on the contrary, seek acceptance of sex work as a legitimate occupation and take as their point of departure the condition of sex workers, with a rights-oriented approach. Zi Teng, a Hong Kong-based sex workers concern organization, for example, declares:

“Sex workers, with women the majority, have been deprived of their basic and rightful rights that other workers in other professions are entitled to…. We believe that all women, regardless of their professions, social classes, religions, races, age and sexual orientation, should have the same basic human rights, that they are equal and entitled to fair and equal treatment in the legal and judicial and any other social systems, that nobody should be oppressed against, that all people should live with human dignity.”

Rona, “sex worker of the year”, writes in the first issue of Respect! (July 2000), the journal of the London-based International Union of Sex Workers:

“Yes, it is a profession – I believe a perfectly respectable profession, and should be viewed as such in the same way as a teacher, accountant or anyone else. I believe that the first step is to obtain recognition for sex workers as legitimate workers in a legitimate industry and profession. The first move is to form a union and then press for the same rights as other workers enjoy. Alongside this would be the need to legalise prostitution and change and review all the laws associated with the sex industry, thereby raising the status of sex workers so we have the same rights and status as any other citizen. Why should the fact that I have chosen to work as a prostitute be considered any different from that of being a nurse, which I once was? There should be no social stigma attached….Raising the status of sex work to be a legitimate way of earning a living would enable many of the more degrading aspects, such as pimps and drugs, to be dealt with more effectively.”

Nadia Lamamra (5), former secretary of the Swiss Feminist Coalition (FemCo), writes that:

“The principal limitation of the abolitionist approach is the refusal to listen to the views of the prostitutes, which is indispensable, knowing as we do that to deny women a voice is an element in their oppression. This also goes for prostitutes: by denying them a voice, one only perpetuates the social stigma they are subjected to. Listening to the prostitutes also means getting away from a victimizing and maternalist discourse.”

She then stresses the difference between forced prostitution and chosen prostitution: whereas all forms of forced prostitution must be fought by all means, chosen prostitution calls for other solutions, which must be based on the needs and expectations of those principally involved (6). Against that background,
“it would be possible to develop a trade union type of approach, based on the defense of the rights and interests of the persons exercising this profession. Separating chosen and forced prostitution means confronting feminists with a political challenge: should one opt for a reformist approach focused on the working conditions of prostitutes, or can one maintain a position of principle of an abolitionist type?”
Refering to an article by Paola Tabet (7), which discusses all forms of sexual exchange for some form of remuneration or reward, Lamamra concludes that one cannot expect to be able to abolish one form of sexual exchange for remuneration in a context where all others remain in place. Finally, referring to Gail Pheterson (8) she recalls that the “stigma of the whore” is an instrument of social control, by dividing women into those who are “honorable” and those who are not. This division between women is an instrument needed to maintain patriarchal power relations and, “as feminists, we should be very careful not to reproduce it.”

The controversy between the abolitionist and the reformist position is continuing, with contradictory results (9), but it seems clear that the sex workers’ movement in its present organized form owes a great deal to the women’s rights movement of the 1960s.

Migration Flows

In the last ten years the economic and social collapse in the countries of the former Soviet block, the spread of poverty in Africa as well as in Asia and Latin America in the wake of the financial and economic crises of the 1990s, has led to poverty-driven migrations on a scale not previously experienced in recent history. Millions are migrating from Latin America to North America, Western Europe and Japan, from Eastern Europe and Africa to Western Europe, from South East Asia to Western Europe, Australia, Japan, North America, and other points in Asia, from South Asia and South East Asia to the Middle East, etc. generally from poor countries to rich countries. Similar migrations for the same reasons take place within regions (from Nepal and Bangladesh to India, from Vietnam to Cambodia, from Burma to Thailand) or within countries (within China, from the North and from rural provinces to the coastal cities of the South and to Hong Kong and Macau).

Much of this migration is illegal, which may be individual or organized. Often a distinction is made between two forms of organized illegal migration: smuggling and trafficking. Smuggling is a voluntary transaction that is supposed to ultimately benefit the immigrant. It is a legal issue which violates the rights of the State but does not violate human rights. Trafficking, on the other hand, involves violence, coercion or deception and its purpose is the exploitation of the migrant for the benefit of a third party. The main forms of exploitation are prostitution, forced labour, slavery or the removal of organs. It is a violation of human rights and the migrant involved is a victim of a crime entitled to protection.

Väyrynen (10) stresses the responsibilities of governments:

“Human trafficking has been growing in tandem with the growing pressures of emigration and the closure of the borders, especially in the European Union. In effect, there seems to be a direct correlation between the increasingly restrictive policies by the EU and its member States and the level of risks and fees associated with human smuggling. In other words, receiving States are creating by their policies a lucrative market for traffickers.”

In practice, it is not always easy to distinguish between these two forms of illegal migration, inasmuch as fraud, deception and abuse of power often also features in smuggling operations, although organized crime syndicates are primarily involved in trafficking.

In addition, new forms of trafficking are emerging that do not involve fraud with documents and illegal immigration. Migrants with residence permits working legally also fall victim to extortionist practices, exploitation and all other abuses associated with trafficking, all of which can also be prosecuted under ordinary criminal law. As De Rode Draad (see below) points out, the issue is therefore not principally one of legal status, but improving the status and working conditions of all sex workers, and to empower them by other means than just a change in legal status. (11)

Women account for a large proportion of both legal and undocumented migrants and a high proportion enters the sex industry in the receiving countries. A case study from Japan (12) notes that “one of the recent trends of world migration is the increased ‘feminization of migration’ which started since the 1980s.” In the case of Japan, ninety percent of the migrant workers who were arrested as undocumented immigrants from the early 1980s to 1987 were from the Philippines and Thailand and, until the mid-1980s, most of these were women. The report notes that until 1987, ninety percent of female migrant workers were engaged in the sex industry; in later years, the proportion of other jobs like domestic work, cleaning, factory work gradually increased.

According to the International Organization for Migration (13), an estimated 120,000 women from Eastern Europe enter the European Union every year to work in the sex industry, in addition to a steady flow from Africa (mostly West Africa), Asia (mostly Philippines and Thailand) and Latin America (mostly the Dominican Republic and Brazil). In every European country the number of migrant sex workers is superior to the local ones. According to the European Commission, the proportion of foreign-born sex workers is 75 percent in Germany, 50 percent in Britain, 90 percent in Italy, 60 percent in France and 66 percent in the Netherlands. (14).

Since 1995, over ninety percent of female entertainer (E-6) visa holders entering South Korea came from either Asian or European countries, particularly from the Philippines and the former Soviet Union States (15).

In summary: the sex industry has globalized and employs far more people than ever before under increasingly precarious conditions, in many cases under the control of criminal networks. Governments in receiving countries have become increasingly concerned about the health and crime risks and the human rights issues involved. In Europe, although two governments have recently opted for repression, a larger number is opting for regulation. Regulation, in the present context, means de facto acceptance and recognition of sex work as a legitimate form of employment.

The HIV/AIDS Issue

Governments, international organizations and civil society organizations have become increasingly alarmed about the HIV/AIDS pandemic and obviously sex workers have a crucial role to play in combating the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including HIV/AIDS. It has also become clear that whenever sex work is exercised in precarious conditions (illegality, repression, control by organized crime) general health care does not reach sex workers. Moreover, under such conditions, sex workers, even when they have all the relevant information, are generally not in a position to impose responsible conduct on their customers. Consequently, governments and inter-governmental institutions have become supportive of NGOs concerned with sex work and sex workers’ organizations.

For example, the European Network for HIV/AIDS Prevention in Prostitution (EUROPAP) and the Transnational AIDS/STD Prevention Among Migrant Prostitutes in Europe (TAMPEP) have been funded by the European Commission since 1993 as part of its Europe Against AIDS Program.

The objective of EUROPAP is to evaluate the many projects that have emerged in Europe with the purpose of bringing health care, and specifically HIV/AIDS prevention, closer to men and women in sex work. EUROPAP seeks to analyze how these projects work, what makes them successful or fail. It also organizes access to existing health education materials used in the different prevention projects.
TAMPEP is a European project that combines research and active intervention, with the direct involvement of sex workers. It started in 1993, initially carrying out work in Austria, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, since September 2000 covering 21 countries of which 7 in Central and Eastern Europe. It reaches more than 20 different nationalities of women and transgender people from Central and Eastern Europe, South East Asia, Africa and Latin America involved in sex work in EU countries.

The principal objective of such projects is to protect public health by combating STDs, not to defend sex workers’ rights. However, indirectly they contribute to strengthening the position of sex workers and their organizations. For example, TAMPEP describes its position as follows:

“The goal of sex work-related HIV/STD prevention is to reduce the health risks associated with sex work. The conviction that sex workers should have access to health services in order to improve their own health rather than to prevent them from infecting clients is the basic principle of TAMPEP.

“In order to obtain a behavioural change among the members of the target group of sex workers, TAMPEP believes that it is necessary to address health in general but it is equally important and necessary to deal with the overall social position and the working conditions of sex workers. TAMPEP has experienced that sex workers who are able to employ health-protection techniques and engage in risk reducing behaviour such as HIV/STD prevention, automatically acquire more self-esteem. For many of them this is a way of empowerment and a way of gaining control over their health and their lives in general….

“The development of self-help organisations and trade unions of sex workers should also be encouraged and stimulated. This way, sex workers will be able to create their own living and working conditions based on their real needs and demands. And thus they will be able to exercise a better control over their situation….”(16)

It should be noted that the USD15 billion project to fight AIDS world wide, recently launched by the current US administration, explicitly excludes programs involving sex workers’ organizations. (17)

Sex Workers’ Organizations

As in other areas of the informal economy, organizations of all types exist, ranging from actual trade unions through various types of associations (advocacy and concern groups, self-help groups) to foundations and other institutions conducting research, providing information and developing policy. All of these collectively constitute the sex workers’ movement, in a broad sense.

A number of associations are evolving into unions and are already carrying out some trade union functions. Unions, however, have specific characteristics, the principal being that they are democratically structured membership organizations, where the leadership is accountable to the membership. Only sex workers can be members of a sex workers’ union, whereas NGOs dealing with sex work can and do involve others (social workers and activists, academics, etc.) and are not necessarily structured in terms of democratic accountability.

De Rode Draad (Red Thread), which was founded as an advocacy group in 1985, recognized this distinction when it separated its advocacy and union functions following the legalization of prostitution in the Netherlands in October 2000. In June 2002, the union Vakwerk De Rode Draad was established; it is now part of Bondgenoten FNV, which is the largest union within the FNV trade union confederation, itself the largest central trade union organization in the country. The Foundation De Rode Draad continues as an advocacy and support group.

Although De Rode Draad (DRD) first contacted the union in 1991, these first contacts remained inconclusive because of a dilemma which is familiar to others involved in organizing workers in the informal economy: the union would not accept members that were not in a clear employer-employee relationship whereas sex workers were, and mostly still are, self-employed. In addition, DRD was reluctant to accept any form of labour contract that would not fully safeguard the anonymity of its members. Eventually, however, DRD began to accept the idea of employment with a labour contract and, more importantly, the Bondgenoten FNV established a department for own-account workers.

The second round of discussions took place shortly before legalization of brothels. At that point, the Bondgenoten Executive decided that sex workers could become members.

How does DRD work with the union? Sietske Altink, spokesperson of the DRD Foundation, describes it as follows:

“They support us in making a union for sex workers, in our own office that is associated with the big union. So we do the intake. And women don’t have to state their names, etc. in a rather official setting of a regular trade union. We can use their expertise in concrete cases. Time will tell if it has to stay this way or if we’ll become fully integrated. Self employed sex workers can also become members.

“The FNV gives us full support in case of labour conflicts in brothels, whether individually or collectively.

“They also support us in political action and they pull all their force because they are fully recognized by the government as a social partner in our ‘poldermodel’ (the Dutch social model).

“Besides they are developing a tailor made training program for sex workers so they can become fully fledged shop stewards.

“And they made us some materials.

“And last but not least, they are entitled to make a collective labour contract that should be valid nation-wide for those sex workers who want to enter the employer-employee relationship.

“We see working with a regular trade union as a great step forward:
– first and foremost: official recognition
– expertise in the case of labour conflicts
– weighty partner in political issues.”

Altink, further describing the co-operation of DRD with Bondgenoten FNV, writes:

“Now we are debating about exploitation of undocumented sex workers. We want to know if there is some kind of action possible in parallel with exploitation of people in garment sweatshops, domestic work in conditions of slavery. We are trying to work out something for those sex workers, so they have a means of redress, which should be better than just deportation. But … there is this sensitive issue about undocumented women: we want more women to be documented but you should not make exceptions. Our view is: migrant sex workers should enjoy the same rights and be subject to the same restrictions as migrants in other professions. Of course you can denounce national immigration policies as too limited. But then you should address it as a matter of immigration policy that concerns people in ALL professions.

“And that brings me to the 50,000 euro question: what are the advantages (of the union) for a sex worker who won’t or can’t associate? E.g. the undocumented women? Or for sex workers who don’t perceive themselves as sex workers and have taken up the work ‘just for a couple of days’ to get some temporary financial relief? The answer should be plain and simple: they should be able to apply for support even if we don’t know their names and legal status. We as a union are not the police, we don’t check on residence permits or whatever. We don’t do the work of the police.

“But how do brothel owners react? They didn’t exactly send us a box of cigars to celebrate. We encouraged the existing organizations of brothel owners to take their next historically important step and become a member of the official organizations for employers. Some of them had come across that idea themselves. Some are willing to take their seat at the negotiating table. But on the whole, they sort of reacted scared and aggressive, not unlike the great captains of industry in the nineteenth century when workers got organized. In practice, this means we get kicked out of brothels often. There is a long way to go. We don’t expect we will succeed within the next year.

“But let me conclude: there is one thing worse than fighting brothel owners and that is not fighting brothel owners. There is one thing worse than fighting exploitation, and that is not fighting exploiting. And there is one thing worse than organizing and that is not organizing. And there is one thing worse than just a small group of organized sex workers and that is no group at all.”

In July, DRD reported that the brothel owners were now prepared to enter negotiations for a national collective agreement and had a formal representative in the employers’ organization.
The International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW) is a London-based organization which, despite of its name, only covers the London area although its membership includes persons of many nationalities.
In the editorial of the first issue of its journal in July 2000, the IUSW explained its decision to form a union as follows:

“The sex industry has gone global, making vast profits for a small number of individuals, few of whom are women. … Sex workers may have been forced into their employment, or may freely have chosen such work. Either way, they have no union which – even in principle – they can join. Marginalised throughout society, they are ignored or shunned by the official trades union movement. We aim to change all that.

“As in all workers’ struggles, emancipation can only be achieved through self-organisation. But above all, this struggle begins with pride and respect. … The way to combat criminal abuse of peoples’ bodies for profit is to bring the whole industry out. When the oldest profession comes out, pimps and capitalists beware! … Whatever your sex or sexual situation, if you feel you need a union, you are welcome to join!”
On March 2, 2002 IUSW members voted to become affiliated to the GMB, Britain’s fourth largest union. IUSW secretary Ana Lopes said that joining the GMB will strengthen the IUSW’s voice on such issues as the decriminalisation of prostitution in the UK:

“We’re trying to remove the stigma against sex work and sex workers. We think that changing the law – decriminalising sex work – is one of the steps towards it and it’s a very important one. The same happened with gay rights: when they removed the laws that actually helped social attitudes to change as well.”

A GMB spokeswoman, Lisa Venes, said:

“There are lots of areas where we could improve conditions for sex industry workers. For a start, the hours many people in the sex industry work are totally erratic. We are also talking about telephone-sex operators working from call centres, and people who work in factories manufacturing sex toys on minimum wages.”

The GMB has offered its newly recruited sex workers self-defence classes, free legal advice and exit training for those who feel they might like to change their jobs. It also offered help with issues such as a prostitutes’ right to insist clients wear condoms and campaigning for statutory health checks.
De Rode Draad and the IUSW are numerically quite small. DRD has only about one hundred regular dues-paying members, out of an estimated potential ranging from 25,000 (EU estimate) to 50,000 (DRD estimate). IUSW now has 150 members out of a potential of 80,000 (EU estimate, almost certainly understated by half). This is due to the specific difficulties sex workers’ unions encounter when organizing (the distrust of sex workers of any authority, a concern to protect privacy and, indeed, anonymity, the high proportion of undocumented workers) in addition to the “normal” difficulties any union faces when organizing.

It should be noted that unionized sex workers are an elite group. Becoming a union activist in this environment requires an exceptionally strong personality, and a very high degree of intelligence and commitment. It may be said that such are the qualities required for any union organizing anywhere, but it is clear that in sex work the demands and the pressures on the person are unlike any other normally encountered in union organizing. It should also be noted that the influence of even small sex workers’ unions goes far beyond their regular membership. DRD literature, for example, gets distributed to about 10,000 persons.

The small membership base means, however, that such organizations cannot be financially self-supporting. Membership dues are symbolic (in the case of Vakwerk DRD, EUR40 per year). External funding comes from the mainstream unions (Bondgenoten FNV and GMB); other income comes from fund drives, sponsoring events, donations, etc. NGOs dealing with sex work issues are typically funded by foundations, governments and inter-governmental organizations. Some claim to be self-supporting through the sale of souvenirs and donations.

DRD and IUSW are currently the only two sex workers’ unions in Europe which are part of the mainstream trade union movement. This is likely to change as sex work becomes decriminalized in other European countries. In May, a delegation from the Vereinigte Dienstleistungsgewerkschaft (Ver.di) (United Service Workers’ Union), the largest union in Germany, visited DRD to get information about the Dutch situation and declared the interest of their union to take on the cause of sex workers in view of the legalization of sex work in Germany.

The membership situation can be very different in other regions. For example, the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, a Calcutta-based sex workers’ organization, claims 60,000 members in Bengal.
Asociación de las Mujeres Meretrices de Argentina (AMMAR) (Association of Women Sex Workers of Argentina), founded on March 20, 2002, has its headquarters in Buenos Aires, where it is known as AMMAR Capital. The national Executive Committee (Comisión Directiva), elected by the first National Assembly of Sex Workers in March 2000, is composed of eight sex workers and its work in Buenos Aires is supported by three social psychologists, a (woman) lawyer, neighbours (voluntary workers) and a district delegate in each of the eight city districts where most of its members work. The Executive Committee members include a legal representative, a treasurer, a member responsible for human rights work, a member responsible for social action and a secretary. AMMAR describes itself as “a flat structure, democratic and pluralist.”

AMMAR is affiliated to the Central de los Trabajadores Argentinos (CTA), a national trade union confederation formed a few years ago in opposition to the larger Confederación General de Trabajadores (CGT).

The objectives of AMMAR are “to strengthen, transmit and implement to our comrades (compañeras) policies of self-respect, managing their own lives and autonomy, and above all make them conscious of gender and identity issues.”

This is carried out through informal and participative workshops, where information is conveyed on HIV/AIDS, reproductive health, human rights, among other issues. These workshops are conducted in cooperation with the AIDS Coordination of the municipal government of Buenos Aires. Another aspect of this cooperation is the distribution of condoms through dispensers in the neighbourhoods where its members are working. AMMAR Capital also distributes condoms from its office.

AMMAR Capital has reached an agreement with the city hospitals for the provision of health services to its members, including pap tests, mammography, hepatitis vaccinations, HIV tests.

Since April 2002, AMMAR Capital is a partner of the social services of the municipal government in distributing food parcels (from its office) as part of the municipality’s Food Policy Program. Last year it distributed 200 parcels and 200 bags of fruit and vegetables a month, this year it distributes 400 of each (a food parcel contains vegetable oil, flour, pasta, milk, rice, maté tea, sugar, lentils, cocoa, canned fish; a bag of produce contains 9 kg of potatoes, pumpkin, onions, carrots, oranges, apples). AMMAR Capital also runs a clothes dispensary for its more needy members.

Through the CTA, AMMAR has reached agreement with the national register of inhabitants, to provide identity papers for its Argentine members who lost theirs, or had them stolen, or never had any. It has now included friendly NGOs in this service and in five months distributed 450 identity cards.
AMMAR has also gained access to the Women’s Commission of Parliament, where it meets once a week with men and women deputies to discuss women’s issues.

Together with another organization, AMMAR has secured an agreement with the Ministry of Labour for payment of unemployment benefits under a plan covering own-account workers.
In 2002, AMMAR has also been asked by LUSIDA (the national anti-AIDS program) to run workshops in the provinces of Chaco and Corrientes. After these workshops, a branch of AMMAR was established in Chaco.

This is, in summary, the report on activities of AMMAR for the year 2002. They conclude:

“We are promoting work in groups, empowerment through knowledge, the exercise of power and decision making. We are building social networks because we have realized that united we can achieve more, that is why we are supporting all the struggles of our fellow workers. Ourselves, through our organization, have recognized ourselves as real citizens, capable of exercising our rights responsibly and to carrying out our duties faithfully and effectively.”

Zi Teng (18) is a NGO in Hong Kong that describes itself as a sex workers concern organization. It is formed by social workers, labour activists, researchers specializing in women’s studies, church workers and others. It is a membership organization: any person who supports and practices its aims is eligible to join. There are “basic members” who have the right to vote in the general assembly, the right of nomination and election, and “contact members” who do not have these rights but share other membership rights such as participating in all activities, use the services, resources and data bank and take part in deciding the work, activities and direction of the organization. The annual membership fee is HKD100 for basic members and HKD50 for contact members. Zi Teng activities are also supported by the Dutch development funding agency NOVIB, Bread for the World and others.

Its partners are women from Hong Kong and China who work as sex workers. Zi Teng provides them with information on their legal rights, occupational safety and health and other social resources, by means of publications (pamphlets, handouts) and direct contact. It also helps them in networking and building up a mutual support system.

To improve communications between sex workers, concerned organizations and society at large, Zi Teng publishes newsletters, stories and oral histories and videos, aiming at providing a better understanding of sex workers, as well as their work and their situation. The objective is to change the attitude of the public to sex workers and eventually eliminate discrimination against them.
Zi Teng also monitors government policies and legislation, and reacts to the possible impact these may have on the situation of sex workers. It also lobbies health authorities to respond to the health care needs of sex workers.

It conducts research on various issues concerning the situation and needs of sex workers, sex work related law and policies of Hong Kong and other countries, occupational safety and health of sex workers, etc.

Its publications include:

– a Research Report on Mainland Chinese Sex Workers, in Hong Kong, Macau and “Town B” in the Pearl River Delta (144 p., February 2000). Zi Teng also organized a conference in Zhuhai in early 2000.
-a report on the conference organized together with the Asia Monitor Resource Center (AMRC) on Building an Effective Network in the Service of Migrant Sex Workers in East and South East Asia (Hong Kong, June 27-29, 2001), 176 p., August 2001. This conference involved participation and reports from twelve Asian countries and territories as well as from Australia, Germany and the Netherlands. It was addressed by representatives of the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women (GAATW) and the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC).
“Things to Know Before You Go”: a handbook for migrant sex workers in Asia, with basic legal information on the sex industry and immigration (prostitution laws, immigration laws, public health control), general work contracts and working conditions within the sex services sector and basic information on local organizations or institutions that would provide help to migrant sex workers. It covers thirteen countries and territories in Asia. (64 p. nd.).

The Exotic Dancers’ Union represents strippers in San Francisco. It is a chapter of the Service Workers’ International Union, Local 790. In January this year it negotiated a two-year contract with the Lusty Lady strip club which restores a pay cut made almost two years ago back to a top scale of USD27 per hour, gradually raises pay by USD3 per hour, adds USD2 per shift in the first year and USD4 per shift in the second year for preparation time (hair do and makeup) and increases sick pay to one-and-a-half days. It also establishes a hiring level ensuring that all strippers can get the shifts they are asking for. The agreement was reached following a demonstration by the strippers in San Francisco’s North Beach neighbourhood. The Lusty Lady is so far the only unionized strip club in the US. (19)

Demands and Issues

The demands of sex workers’ organizations are broadly similar in all countries and regions. The principal one is, of course, decriminalization in all countries where sex work is illegal (20). TAMPEP, for example, declares:

“TAMPEP has established that a repressive policy both on prostitution and on illegal immigration deeply undermines the prostitutes’ chance to implement a strategy of self-protection (for their health and for their well being) and autonomy in performing their activities as sex workers; such a policy increases their risks of being exploited and of becoming subordinate to third persons, promotes social alienation and causes a lack of life alternatives.”

Chanthavipa Aphisuk of the Thai sex workers’ rights group Empower, in a press conference on November 1, 2000 announcing an international sex workers’ meeting in Bangkok later that month, stated: “Statutes in some Asian States that outlaw prostitution push the business underground, making it more dangerous, increasing the risk of HIV transmission and allowing the mafia to control the trade. Legalisation might force society to treat prostitutes like waiters, hotel workers or any other employees in the service sector.”(21)

The IUSW’s demands are typical and would be shared by virtually all sex workers’ organizations:

– Decriminalisaton of all aspects of sex work involving consenting adults.
– The right to form and join professional associations and unions.
– The right to work on the same basis as other independent contractors and employers and to receive the same benefits as other self-employed or contracted workers.
– No taxation without such rights and representation.
– Zero tolerance of coercion, violence, sexual abuse, child labour, rape and racism.
– Legal support for sex workers who want to sue those who exploit their labour.
– The right to travel across national boundaries and obtain work permits wherever we live.
– Clean and safe places to work.
– The right to choose whether to work on our own or co-operatively with other sex workers.
– The absolute right to say no.
– Access to training – our jobs require special skills and professional standards.
– Access to health clinics where we do not feel stigmatized.
– Re-training programs for sex workers who want to leave the industry.
– An end to social attitudes which stigmatise those who are or have been sex workers.

In addition, organizations in Asia, Europe and Latin America have voiced demands for access to social security, health insurance, pensions and unemployment benefits (mostly in terms of accessing normally recognized workers’ rights under labour legislation).

The Movimiento de Mujeres Unidas (MODEMU) (United Women’s Movement) of the Dominican Republic demands:

– fixed wages
– punctual payment of wages
– Easter bonus
– one free day per week
– registration with social security
– pre- and post maternal leave
– two weeks’ paid annual vacation

In Conclusion

(1) The sex industry is a multi-billion dollar industry employing millions of persons, a very large majority of whom are women.
(2) Sex workers’ organizations now exist in most countries in the world, increasingly in the form of unions.
(3) Organized sex workers are “women in informal employment globalizing and organizing”.
(4) A majority of sex workers are deprived of basic human rights and, in some cases, of basic labour rights. Organized sex workers struggle to secure these rights.
(5) All movements, organizations and individuals concerned with human rights, women’s rights and labour rights should support these struggles.


(1) See FNV report: “Organising in the Informal Economy: From Marginal Work to Core Business”, “Taking the “Informal(ising) Margins of the European Labour Market to Heart”, January 12-15, 2003, Soesterberg, Netherlands; published May 2003, 62 p.; available from FNV:
(2) There may have been earlier instances of organization, under exceptional social and political circumstances (Russia 1917, Spain 1936). There is no visible historical continuity between such short-lived attempts and the present movement.
(3) The International Committee for Prostitutes’ Rights, an international umbrella group for sex workers’ organizations, adopted a “world charter” at a meeting held in 1985 which stated i.a. that “prostitutes should have the freedom to chose their place of work and residence”. (Christine Stolba: The Newest Dilemma About the Oldest Profession, in The Women’s Quarterly, Fall 2000.
(4) There is some dispute, and many jokes, as to what is actually “the oldest profession”. Politicians is one favourite.
(5) in Domaine public, an independent socialist journal in Lausanne, Nr. 1543, January 2003. See also: Corinne Monnet, “Pour une autre perspective féministe de la prostitution”, Femmes en Suisse, May 2000.
(6) Abolitionist feminists view prostitution as linked to a patriarchal system and thus inherently exploitative. Consequently, it cannot ever be a free choice. However, in that case, would male prostitution be a freer choice than female prostitution? And, without minimizing in any way the specific psychological and physical risks involved in sex work, how “free” a choice for women is work in a supermarket or a factory or, for that matter, for men in a slaughterhouse, etc.?
For an abolitionist view, see Julie Bindel, “Sex Workers are Different”, The Guardian, July 7, 2003; for a rejoinder, see: Ana Lopes and Callum Macrae, “Sex Workers Need a Trade Union and a Decriminalised Industry, Not Feminist Pity”, The Guardian, July 25, 2003.
For another discussion of the issues, see Lin Lean Lim, “The Economic and Social Basis of Prostitution in Southeast Asia”, especially pp. 14 to 18 (in The Sex Sector, ILO, 1998).
(7) Paola Tabet, “Du don au tarif”, Les Temps modernes, No. 490, 1987
(8) Gail Pheterson, The Prostitution Prism, Amsterdam University Press, 1996
(9) Whereas prostitution has been outlawed by a conservative government in France (2003) and by a social-democratic government in Sweden (1999), it has been legalized by a Centre-Left government in the Netherlands (2000), by an SD-Green coalition government in Germany (2002), by a Left coalition government in New Zealand (2003) and it is about to be legalized in Belgium (Cente-Left coalition).
(10) Raimo Väyrynen, Illegal Immigration, Human Trafficking and Organized Crime, paper prepared for the conference organized by the UNU/WIDER on “Poverty, International Migration and Asylum”, Helsinki, September 27-28, 2002, revised March 15, 2003.
(11) The Sexwork Initiative Group the Netherlands (SIGN) seeks to broaden the issue: “We believe that the European trafficking debate needs to be transformed into a debate on labour migration and rights. Therefore, in our point of view, sex workers all over Europe need to unite and seek new allies from human rights, labour and migrant rights organizations. Together we can challenge existing ideas and policies on sex work and trafficking and set up a new debate in which sex workers (organizations) play the lead role. It is our dream that all of this leads up to a European Conference on Sex Work, Human Rights, Labour Rights and Migration where sex workers, human rights activists, labour organizations and politicians can exchange ideas in an open discussion in which the rights of sex workers are the starting point. This strong alliance can work on strategies to change laws and to have a human rights perspective adopted in all the European measures against trafficking.”
(12) Aisa Kiyosue, “Feminisation of Migrant Workers: Legal Problems Around Female Migrant Workers – A Case Study from Japan” (in report to Hong Kong conference, June 2001 (see below)).
(13) Quoted in Business Week, October 7, 2002, “A New Approach to the Oldest Profession”.
(14) Reliable absolute figures are very difficult to obtain. According to Väyrynen, the scale of illegal migration is impossible to determine exactly, not only due to the clandestine nature of the operation but also because of the lack of common international standards about what “illegal” exactly means. Regarding sex work, official figures are generally understated. Clandestine sex workers, occasional or part-time sex workers do not appear in the statistics and their numbers are difficult to estimate. Thus, for Germany, the European Commission estimate is 200,000, whereas Madonna, a German sex workers’ concern group, writes (in their report to the Hong Kong conference, June 2001): “Figures on the number of women and men working as sex workers in the FRG do not exist. The relevant literature estimates that the number of women working as prostitutes range between 50,000 and 400,000 in the old federal states of the FRG. No estimates of the number of male sex workers are available at all.” In a press report last year, the official German estimate is given as 400,000 (“German prostitutes ponder salaried work”, by Erik Schelzig in IHT, May 13, 2002).
(15) Kanaga Raja, “Trafficked Filipino Women Servicing American Soldiers in Korea”, IBON Features, September 27, 2002
(16) TAMPEP report to the Hong Kong conference, June 2001
(17) Jo Doezema, of Network of Sex Work Projects, reporting to the “Festival of Pleasure” National Conference of Sex Workers, Kerala, India, March 1-3, 2003
(18) “Zi Teng (Acorus Calamus) is a plant with an extraordinarily tough and strong vitality. Their leaves and stems can be used for making ropes, baskets and other household furniture. They grow and flourish, quietly and unnoticeably around house corners, alongside with other wild grasses, and in the wind.”
(19) Associated Press report, January 31, 2003
(20) On the meaning of decriminalization, Lin Lean Lim observes: “It should be strongly emphasized that the proposal that there should be decriminalization of prostitutes does not at all imply that decriminalization should also apply to the institutions of the sex sector that thrive on the coercion, exploitation or abuse of women and children. As a legal approach, decriminalization should involve: (a) reform or review of laws and regulations that sanction, penalize or discriminate against sex workers on the basis of their work; (b) recognition of prostitution as a legal occupation, so that individuals working in the sector have access to the same labour rights and social protection as other workers; (c) special measures to protect the most vulnerable in the sex sector; (d) tightened and stricter enforcement of criminal sanctions against those trafficking in, exploiting or abusing prostitutes; and (e) penal provisions against corrupt enforcement authorities and clients of under-age prostitutes.” (Lin Lean Lim, “Whither the Sex Sector? Some Policy Considerations”, in, The Sex Sector, ILO, 1998).
(21) Asia-sex, World’s oldest profession to push for rights at Bangkok conference, Agence France Presse report, November 1, 2000.