Which countries and/or regions does the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC) focus on?
The New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC) is based in New Zealand. The National Coordinator, Catherine Healy, told NSWP that their advocacy work is often international, given interest in the New Zealand model on the decriminalisation of sex work. Many delegations visit NZPC to find out more about sex work in New Zealand and to learn more about the decriminalisation of sex work.
NZPC has offices in Wellington, Auckland, Christchurch, Dunedin, Tauranga, and Palmerston North.
What is the history of NZPC? How and why was it formed?
Concerns around HIV and around sex workers’ ability to control their work conditions acted as a catalyst for the collective’s formation in 1987. Catherine said “we felt there was a lot of animosity building towards sex workers, we wanted our work to be recognised, we didn’t want to be arrested.”
At this time in New Zealand, sex workers were often arrested and charged with soliciting by police. The police also had a lot of power over sex workers, and often violated the rights of sex workers. “It was really wrong,” said Catherine “we felt we needed to come together to do something about that.”
Sex workers began talking and meeting. Soon sex workers working indoors joined street-based sex workers. The new collective was formed, and they decided they would be an organisation for anyone who identifies as a sex worker.
The formation of NZPC also provided a much needed platform for sex workers to address the discrimination and stigma they experienced in society. “We recognised that we were being misrepresented, we wanted to have our own voices represented in discussions about us. Everyone was talking about us, except sex workers it seemed,” said Catherine.
As a founding member of NZPC describes on their website, “we met on beaches, sat round pub tables, huddled in doorways, and spoke on the telephone to unseen, like minded, sex workers throughout the country. Sex workers were on the move. People started to talk about us as if we were a force to be reckoned with. This is really when we realised we were becoming an organisation.”
In 1987, NZPC met with the government for the first time. They considered their relationship with the government, discussing whether a formal relationship may lead to government control. They wanted to remain independent. At the same time they considered the ways in which more formal relationships with the government could be a way to have contact and influence over government policies.
In 1991, police began raiding massage parlours and arresting street-based sex workers. They used condoms as evidence to convict sex workers of prostitution-related offences. NZPC told the Ministry of Health that they would be unable to continue providing services, which were funded by the Ministry of Health, unless an interdepartmental committee was established to review the laws surrounding sex work. There was a lot of conflict between the Police and the Ministry of Health. The interdepartmental committee was established, and this started the conversation about the decriminalisation of sex work.
What are the priority areas that NZPC works in? What kinds of services does NZPC offer? Does NZPC do political work, if so, what kind?
NZPC is a rights-based organisation. “A lot of the work we do is looking at how to protect the rights of sex workers,” said Calum from NZPC. NZPC does outreach in all sex work venues including larger brothels, private residences, and areas where street-based sex workers work. Outreach is not only about distributing condoms, lube and other safer sex supplies, it is about sharing information. Outreach enables discussions about issues that may be arising in the community. For example, in different venues, in different regions, or issues arising from decision that have happened at various city councils. “We have recently been involved in providing an expert opinion to a council where there was an application to increase the number of sex workers who can work from a brothel in a residential area from 3 to 4,” said Calum.
NZPC looks at how the rights of sex workers can be improved and supported. “We are often invited to present guest lectures to groups such as medical, law, and social work students, to orient them to issues that are pertinent to sex workers. It also helps with addressing attitudes, stigma, and discrimination that are thoughtlessly applied to sex workers,” continued Calum.
One of the biggest focus areas for NZPC is the migrant sex worker population in New Zealand. Migrant sex workers experience discrimination in New Zealand because of the existing legislation. Migrant sex work is illegal in New Zealand under the Prostitution Reform Act of 2003. Some people are turned back at the border on suspicion of being sex workers. However, it is important to note that at a grass-roots level, the police take complaints from migrant sex workers without discriminating against them.
NZPC explained that it is really important advocate against the discriminatory legislation against migrant sex workers, since it negatively impacts them.
NZPC explained, “you cannot come to NZ [unless you are an Australian or New Zealand citizen] with the intent of becoming a sex worker. It’s a discriminatory law […] if you need a work visa you cannot apply as a sex worker.” This means many migrant sex workers coming to NZ to work can still be charged with an offence and can be convicted of breaking immigration law.
NZPC is drawing on their experiences in 2003 to continue organising and building alliances to support the decriminalisation of migrant sex work. In 2013, NZPC released a study on the experiences of migrant sex workers completed by Kaitiaki Research entitled “Occupational Health and Safety of Migrant Sex Workers in New Zealand.” To conduct this research, 124 migrant sex workers were interviewed.
The report found strong support for an amendment to the Prostitution Reform Act (2003) to remove the prohibition for migrant sex workers to engage in commercial sexual services in New Zealand. It was recognised that by ammending the law to remove the specific criminalisation of migrant sex workers in NZ, the current vulnerability and risks associated with working underground would also be reduced or removed.
The report found that a fear of deportation “may act to dissuade migrant workers from accessing intervention in times of need.”
The report notes, “such negative experiences with NZ Immigration Services were reported as reinforcing fear of authorities and acting as a barrier to migrants seeking assistance should the need arise.”
Every year, different political issues arise. NZPC explained that if issues arise that are related to sex work, NZPC is usually the first organisation contacted.
For example, when the New Zealand parliament was asked to consider whether the Swedish model was a more appropriate model for New Zealand, NZPC was invited to present at the select committee. Although some faith-based organisations pushed for the Swedish model, NZPC gave evidence demonstrating why it would not be appropriate to introduce the Swedish model in NZ. The government agreed wholeheartedly with NZPC’s position.
Issues such as the location and zoning of sex work businesses or workplaces, in particular brothels and street-based sex work, has resulted in many disagreements. Some local councils have attempted to control where brothels can operate, have tried to get rid of independent sex workers and home-based occupations and/or made attempts to undermine the ability of independent workers to work safely. On the whole, outcomes from decriminalisation have been largely successful. Independent sex workers are included in by-laws and district plans, and given the same protections as other household occupants.
NZPC have produced resources on the outcomes and impacts of the decriminalising sex work. For example, they produced a resource on the impact of decriminalisation on Māori workers. Māori are the Indigenous people of Aotearoa/New Zealand and as NZPC explains, before sex work was decriminalised in 2003, Māori sex workers were disproportionately affected by policing, prosecution, violence and stigma. As Pania, a Māori sex worker explained, since decriminalisation was introduced “I don’t have to worry a client may be an undercover cop, so I can be up-front about what our expectations are, such as using condoms.”
How are sex workers meaningfully included at NZPC?
NZPC has a board of trustees who are all current or former sex workers. The organisation is also staffed by sex workers – from Community Liaison Workers to the National Coordinator. It has only two staff members who are not sex workers – a lawyer, and an accountant. NZPC is a sex worker-led organisation run by sex worker, for sex workers.
What were the biggest events or challenges NZPC has worked on in the past?
NZPC was the driving force behind the bill to decriminalise sex work. NZPC approached Member of Parliament Tim Barnett to sponsor the Bill as a private member’s Bill, and it passed through parliament in 2003.
NZPC worked hard to build support for decriminalisation prior to the Bill being introduced. The Bill made its way through Parliament between 2000 and 2003. NZPC have produced a video detailing this process, giving further insight into how this landmark legislation was achieved.
While being interviewed by NSWP, Catherine spoke about how NZPC has “always had the sense that when we managed to get the change in 2003, the decriminalisation, that was because we were lobbying, that was lobbying that was led by us, that was sex worker driven.” However this big achievement does not mean that NZPC no longer faces ongoing challenges. Despite the success and achievements of decriminalisation, people have submitted new bills trying to overturn it. NZPC is constantly engaged in the same debate, to ensure the laws are retained and not undermined.
NZPC assisted with the Christchurch School of Medicine at Otago University, the Crime and Justice Research Centre at Victoria University, and the Prostitution Law Review Committee in providing information that was used to review the Prostitution Reform Act in 2008. NZPC organised a conference at which the Prostitution Law Review Committee’s report was presented. The Committee found that the Prostitution Reform Act had benefited sex workers.
What will be the biggest challenges for NZPC in the future?
Calum says NZPC’s biggest challenges heading into the future will be retaining decriminalisation and advocating for the descriminalisation of migrant sex work. Migrant sex workers need the same protections as non-migrant sex workers,” he explained.
In looking to the future, Catherine explained that she is a former sex worker, but emphasised the importance of always having active sex workers involved in NZPC. “You have got to keep your beating heart. It would be terrible if we were a service provider and only a service provider,” says Catherine, “we don't want to be a condom vending machine.”
NZPC sees itself as an organisation with a rights-based core and a service provider. “We are a hybrid organisation in this regard“, explained Catherine. If NZPC was a service provider disconnected from sex workers, it would suit many government bodies. However, this is not a model that effects change. “An effective model is one that is driven by sex workers who have the freedom and the means to build an organisation that is self determining and can advocate for change.
It is very important to provide health services that are tailored to the needs of sex workers. However, providing health services can limit the scope of an organisation. “We need to mak major thrusts to challenge law and access to justice as well as stigma and discrimination. Sex workers need freedom to travel and to be a sex worker in conditions that uphold labour rights and occupational safety and health,” said Calum and Catherine from NZPC.
By building relationships, NZPC hope to bring critical perspectives and understandings to discussions around anti-trafficking policies and laws, and their impacts on migrant populations.
Does NZPC have a message for people outside of the movement?
When asked if NZPC had a message to share with people from outside of the sex workers’ rights movement, Calum talked about the importance of respecting sex workers. “Listen to what sex workers are saying as equal partners, treat sex work as work and treat sex workers as equal partners,” Calum said.
When asked if there was message that NZPC had to share with the sex workers’ rights movement, Catherine spoke about the fact that sex workers are in this together, and that although “we can speak comfortably about sex work in New Zealand, we must also remember to not speak over each other. Although sex workers are sometimes confronted with such bigotry and stigma and discrimination, we have really strong common ground. Solidarity across the globe is really important, no country is insignificant, no sex worker is insignificant,” she concluded.