New Zealand Court Rules in Favour of Sex Worker in Work Place Harassment Case

The New Zealand Human Rights Review Tribunal made a landmark ruling in January 2014 on the violation of a woman’s human rights in a Wellington brothel known as The Kensington Inn. The woman filed a complaint against both the manager of the brothel and the brothel’s owner, M &T Enterprises, after the manager allegedly harassed her.

In February, the Tribunal published a decision siding with the worker—thereby confirming that brothel employees have the legal right not to be harassed by their managers.

In New Zealand, however, the  decriminalisation of sex work over the last decade has helped to promote the human rights of sex workers. Last month's Tribunal ruling further affirms the legitimacy of sex work as a profession and the agency of workers as labourers. 

In her complaint, the worker claimed the manager regularly made intrusive inquiries during the period of harassment in 2010, such as asking inappropriate questions regarding personal limits and personal grooming. The manager also made offensive comments about the plaintiff. The manager was therefore not respecting professional and personal boundaries in a staff member-manager relationship. The manager also sought to restrict communication between staff members in an attempt to prevent staff members from taking up collective action to address unfair treatment by management. The manager proceeded to criticise the plaintiff for referring new workers to the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective (NZPC). The manager therefore restricted the women’s free association rights.

Ultimately, the Tribunal found that the manager had “used language of a sexual nature to subject the plaintiff to behaviour which to the plaintiff was both unwelcome and offensive and was either repeated or of such a significant nature that it had a detrimental effect on the plaintiff.” The woman was awarded NZ$25,000 for emotional damages. The manager, who has denied the charges, no longer runs the brothel.

Catherine Healy, co-founder of the NZPC, which helped the worker bring the complaint to the Tribunal, told a newspaper that the decision marks a legal breakthrough in the country. New Zealand officially decriminalised sex work in 2003, mandating licensing for sex-work businesses and imposing health and safety standards for the sector. During the days of criminalisation, managers who abused the labour rights of sex workers would not have been taken to court for violating their employee’s rights.