Migrant sex workers barred from industry face dangerous situations, exploitation - advocates

The Prostitution Reform Act says only New Zealand citizens and residents over 18 can engage in the sex industry.
The Prostitution Reform Act says only New Zealand citizens and residents over 18 can engage in the sex industry. Photo credit: Via RNZ

By Rayssa Almeida for RNZ

An Auckland sex worker says prohibiting migrants from working in the industry brings more harm than good.

The Prostitution Reform Act section 19 says only New Zealand citizens and residents over 18 can engage in the sex industry, but the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective says that inadvertently makes some migrants susceptible to exploitation.

Kī Anthony, of Chinese and Indian heritage, said they got into sex work out of necessity.

"I had to support myself because my parents weren't happy about me being gay.

"Between the ages of about 19 and about 26, I was doing sex work, mostly to put myself through university and to pay their rent."

Anthony moved to New Zealand at the age of 10 and became a citizen when they were 16. They claim due to their appearance, clients would assume they were working illegally in the sex industry and would use that as a form of blackmailing.

"They would book me and then hear me speak and go, 'Oh, your English is too good, I was looking for someone whose English was a bit more broken.'

"You have these sorts of really transparent interactions with clients who might not be doing anything actively to push your boundaries, but [they are] clearly looking specifically for someone who's a bit more exploitable, someone who might not understand as much of what's going on, or who might have less strong boundaries."

They said although being legally entitled to work in the sex industry, they got a taste of what migrants with work visas go through.

"People have come in and they've said, 'If you don't give me a discount, let me do this for free, let me do this without a condom [or] I'm going to report you to immigration.'

"And in a lot of these cases, these people were very sure that because I was Asian and because I was a student, that I would be working on a visa illegally and they had booked me specifically with the intention of getting something out of me that I didn't want to give."

Anthony said they encountered numerous migrants working in the sex industry, and exploitation happened across the board.

"I'm very lucky that that [sex work] was something I was able to do because I was in fact a citizen.

"But even then, it led to some dangerous situations because of course people would just assume that I was lying, that I was working on a visa and I just had the balls to say 'no, I'm a citizen' and lie to them, so they couldn't threaten me or they just were faced with not getting what they wanted and got aggressive with me.

"I can only imagine what it's like if you don't have that to fall back on."

Section 19 of the 2003 Prostitution Reform Act prohibits migrants from engaging in sex work, in New Zealand in an attempt to avoid human trafficking.

Anthony said the section not only restrained the industry, but exposed migrants to exploitation.

"This is a worker rights issue more generally. This specific section of the Prostitution Reform Act prevents migrant sex workers from working in the same safer conditions that other sex workers do.

"I think that repealing it [section 19] will mean more to the women than to anyone trafficking them. If you've actually been trafficked into sex work in New Zealand and you know that what you're doing is illegal, that you personally are a criminal for working here, then you're not going to go to the police.

"If there are women here who have been trafficked into sex work, then this section is keeping them silent," Anthony said.

'Migrants are being coerced' - Sex worker

In October last year, activist and sex worker Pandora Black collected more than 1300 signatures for a petition against Section 19 of the 2003 Prostitution Reform Act.

Black said although a citizen, she decided to fight for those too scared to speak up.

"What I see is the management of brothels treating them quite badly. There is this expectation that you have to work this many hours and this many days and see whatever clients even if you do not feel comfortable because you have no rights.

"What are you going to do, go to the police?"

The Education and Workforce Committee considered the petition and said repealing the section could make the work environment safer for sex workers.

The report recommended the government to address the issue at the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, happening in July this year.

It said when preparing its response, the government should consider Black's petition.

"We believe that this issue warrants meaningful consideration, noting the concerns of the petitioner, the United Nations, the Human Rights Commission, and the US State Department."

In the report, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) said repealing Section 19 would not change the situation for people working outside their visa conditions.

"They would still want to avoid attention of the authorities because they would still be working unlawfully and potentially be liable for deportation."

MBIE said if section 19 were repealed, migrants who held open work visas would be able to work in the sex industry and it would likely lead to an increase in fraudulent applications for student visas from non-genuine students.

Black said the government needed to act.

"They seem to agree but don't see it as a very high priority, which is quite disappointing. I think it is a fairly easy thing to change, but it seems like they don't care enough.

"There will need to be a few small amendments in the Immigration Act, but it doesn't hurt to start here and move up from that."

'It's a matter of work safety' - Advocates

In a 2018 report, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women expressed concerns about Section 19 of the Prostitution Reform Act 2003.

The committee said Section 19 "may have a negative impact on migrant women" and "migrant women engaged in prostitution may be exposed to exploitation and are at risk of trafficking, owing to the ban on engaging in prostitution imposed on migrants, which prevents them from reporting abuse for fear of deportation".

The committee went on to recommend the government "amend [it], with a view to reducing its negative impact on migrant women".

New Zealand Prostitutes Collective Founder Dame Catherine Healy said stories like Kī Anthony's were not uncommon and migrants in the industry were being exploited.

"It [Section 19] contributes to the conditions that could cause trafficking. If you are working illegally as a sex worker as some of the migrants are, you are less likely to seek help if you are in a situation that you are being exploited."

Migrants Association president Anu Kaloti said only repealing the section from the legislation would not be enough.

"We would need to have lots of gatekeeping and checks and balances in place.

"Maybe we should have a stronger union for the sex workers who actually gate-keep as to what happens to migrant workers who are working in the industry."

Government response

Through a statement, Acting Minister for Women Priyanca Radhakrishnan said the report on New Zealand's implementation of Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) will be submitted to the United Nations in July.

She said the ministry was currently reviewing all of the submissions received through public consultation to finalise the report, which will then be signed off in June.