Select Committee Report in South Australia Recommend Decriminalisation of Sex Work

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Asia Pacific Regional Correspondent

Sex Workers in the Australian state of South Australia (SA) have welcomed a Select Committee Report recommending the Statutes Amendment (Decriminalisation of Sex Work) Bill 2015 be passed without amendment. The Bill seeks to amend various pieces of legislation to decriminalise sex work, to prohibit discrimination against people who are or have worked as sex workers, to allow for certain convictions to be spent, and to provide sex workers with the same rights and protections as other workers.

Ari Reid, the Acting President of Scarlet Alliance, Australian Sex Workers Association, described the fact that the decision was made based on evidence as “heartening,” adding “the decriminalisation of sex workers, our workplaces and our clients, ensures the best outcome not only for sex workers but also for government and the wider community.”

In Australia, sex work laws vary considerably in each state and territory. In the state of New South Wales (NSW), a Royal Commission into Police Corruption over 20 years ago saw the removal of many of the criminal laws previously used to harass and undermine the safety of sex workers. However, in SA, the Summary Offences Act 1953 still contains many offences that undermine the health, rights, wellbeing and safety of sex workers.

For example, brothels and places where sex workers work are often raided by the police and sex workers can be charged with offences such as “soliciting prostitution” (with a maximum penalty of $750) or “living on the earnings from prostitution” (which can entail fines of up to $2,500 or jail). Clients of sex workers can be fined up to $1,250 or jailed for three months for a first offence, with fines and jail terms doubled for subsequent offences.

Other parts of the Act effectively make it illegal to be on a premises “frequented by prostitutes” without a reasonable excuse, or to "receive money paid in a brothel in respect of prostitution.” In raids on brothels in early 2017, South Australian police seized “cars, computer equipment, telephones…Even change out of people's purses” from sex workers under suspicion of “proceeds of crime.”

Criminal laws also discriminate against sex workers when it comes to housing. Landlords can face criminal charges for leasing property if it is used for sex work. Submissions from sex workers to the select committee outlined many of the issues faced when working in a criminalised environment, including the ways in which it limits their ability to negotiate better working conditions.

The report from the select committee builds on the existing wide range of existing evidence in support of decriminalisation and the current Bill

A submission by SA Unions supported decriminalisation, citing the ways in which the proposed Bill would protect the rights of sex workers by protecting them under the Work, Health and Safety Act.

There were many more submissions in support of decriminalisation noted by the select committee. These included submissions by individual sex workers, NSWP members such as New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC), the Working Women’s Centre and Relationships Australia. The Working Womens Centre argued there is an “extraordinary double standard operating” when some women in society are protected from coercion, exploitation or poor management practices in their workplace, and sex workers are not because what they are doing is classed as illegal.”

NZPC drew on their experience of the decriminalised model in New Zealand, and argued that “expanding workers’ rights and protections to sex workers, protects sex workers by giving them access to appropriate legal remedies.”

Some anti-sex work campaigners and conservative religious advocates made submissions to the select committee, which erroneously conflated ‘legalisation’ or licensing models with decriminalisation, called for special criminal laws and police powers to remain as they pushed for the ‘Nordic Model’. However, the detrimental impacts of any form of criminalisation were also considered, including the fact that the Nordic Model “poses the same unsafe work practices for sex workers as criminalisation.”

Furthermore, the report noted “laws against buying sex, mean that sex workers have to take more risks to protect buyers from detection by the police. Consequently, this drives the sex industry underground and leaves sex workers at a greater risk of violence.” For more information on the Swedish Model, see NSWP’s Advocacy Toolkit: The Real Impact of the Swedish Model on Sex Workers.

Ultimately, Committee chair Michelle Lensink MLC, told ABC news that “the arguments of those against decriminalisation failed to convince the majority of the committee.”

South Australian sex worker, and manager of SIN (Sex Industry Network) Sharon Jennings, described the decision as “a big win for South Australian sex workers”. She added, “it is a huge step in recognising that sex work is work, and sex workers are entitled to rights and health and safety in the work place, just like other South Australians.”