Proposed Bylaw to Push Sex Workers Out of their Neighbourhood in Christchurch, New Zealand

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Asia Pacific Regional Correspondent

The New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC) have cautioned the local city council in Christchurch, New Zealand against taking the approach of introducing a new by law pushing sex workers out of their workspaces.

A recent report prepared by Christchurch City Council noted if the currently proposed bylaw were to go ahead, the council could face legal action for discrimination.

The report from the city council explored two options: one being to introduce a bylaw banning sex workers from certain locations. The second option would be to continue to bring different groups and agencies together to work to find the best way to deal with issues.

A new bylaw would require the council to spend an estimated $20,000 to $25,000 to commit a legal review. It would also cost the council up to $20,000 to introduce the bylaw and another $136,000 a year to enforce, according to news reports. It was added that the council could reduce costs by giving powers to the police to enforce the bylaw. 

Speaking as NZPC’s national coordinator, Catherine Healy said legal action would be a last resort. Instead she explained that NZPC wanted to work with the council on other options: “I hope they'll trust us to get on and do what we're doing and effect change in a non-coercive way."

Following the major earthquakes that struck Christchurch in 2010 and 2011, much of the cities central business district was cordoned off. This included Manchester St - the workplace of sex workers for several decades. Along with other fellow residents and workers, street-based sex workers were forced to relocate, with many moving to suburbs to the north. Since then, traffic flow through central Manchester St has been disrupted by prolonged road works reportedly discouraging workers from the area.  

NZPC law and policy adviser Bridie Sweetman says once the road work is finished, more sex workers will return to the inner city area and be less likely to frequent the residential areas north of the city.

However, a few vocal residents from the suburbs continue to push for approaches that lack evidence or support form the whole community, with some saying they will consider taking the council to court if their demands to push sex workers out are not heard.

In 2016 after pressure from residents, a CCTV was installed in the residential area. However, this approach does not address the fact that sex workers need a place to work from.  Christchurch bylaw states that "no person may undertake commercial activities in a public place" without council permission. However, Christchurch City Council head of strategic policy, Helen Beaumont, was reported explaining, "there is a clause in the bylaw against commercial activity on city streets, but […] service between sex workers and their clients often doesn't take place in a public place.”

There is a lot of evidence on the impacts of punitive laws and policy in a range of countries such as Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Canada. New Zealand itself can draw on the experiences of sex workers who worked prior to decriminalisation. As the NZPC and Armstrong note, punitive laws and policies may purport to be about prohibiting or preventing sex work, but the evidence shows that it is not sex work that ends up inhibited or reduced, but rather, sex workers health rights and safety.

Since decriminalisation in New Zealand, local councils have, on occasion, attempted to impose special discriminatory bylaws targeting sex workers. Such approaches have been considered by courts as incompatible with the rights of sex workers guaranteed by the Prostitution Reform Act (2003) and therefore struck down.

Over the last few years there have been media articles vilifying street-based sex workers with little to no consideration given to the impacts the approaches proposed would have on sex workers' occupational health, safety, and rights. Furthermore, the calls to introduce reactionary bans or laws to push sex workers out of the area have given little thought to the potential for such approaches to constructively meet the needs of the whole community and residents of the area.

Street-based sex workers have been blamed for larger societal issues, and sex workers are not thought to be residents or valuable stakeholders in discussions about the places they work and often live in.

The dehumanising and stigmatising media coverage and language used in recent months has been described as both “dangerous and unnecessary” by Criminologist Lynzi Armstrong. In an opinion editorial on the issue, Armstrong referred to research from Canada which examined how repeated media descriptions of attempts to remove street-based sex workers from residential areas coincided with a significant increase in violence against sex workers.