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The Australian sex industry

This section of the report provides an overview of the structural elements of the sex industry in Australia—its size and structure, applied legal frameworks and employment practices, as well as the characteristics of the sex worker population such as age and cultural background, education, and health and safety issues. The review of the literature on the characteristics of the Australian sex worker population focuses specifically on female migrant sex workers and the issues pertinent to this subgroup.

Structural elements of the Australian sex industry

Size and structure

There exist no official statistics on the number of sex workers in Australia. However, it has been estimated by the AIDS Council of New South Wales (ACON) that there are up to 20,000 people working as sex workers in Australia in any one year (Quadara 2008). Other attempts to estimate the size of the industry are confined to specific jurisdictions or cities. Using a variety of quantitative and qualitative approaches, it has been estimated in prior research that there are between 1,500 and 10,000 sex workers in New South Wales at any one time, highlighting the complexities involved with relying on estimates to provide a reliable number (Donovan et al. 2012). Many of these estimates include only female sex workers.

In the Australian literature on sex work, brothel work is generally defined as multiple sex workers working at premises where services are provided on-site. Massage parlours are similar in that they have several employees and provide services on-site, but the ‘primary service offered is “relaxation massage”’ (Donovan et al. 2012: 19). Private work refers to a sex worker arranging jobs independently (Donovan et al. 2012), where services are provided at private premises (owned or leased by the worker) or an off-site location arranged by a client. Escort agency work involves jobs that are arranged by a business (escort agency), and services are provided off-site at a location arranged by the client. Some brothels fulfil a similar function by arranging services to be provided by their employees off-site (Donovan et al. 2012). It is acknowledged, however, that these are simplified distinctions that may not reflect all sex workers’ situations.

Previous research has categorised sex work using varying parameters—for instance, the number of sex workers working in the one location, whether sexual services are marketed directly or indirectly, whether services are provided at indoor or outdoor locations, and whether sex workers work independently or for another person or sex industry business (Harcourt & Donovan 2005). As outlined later in this report, the legislation concerning sex workers in Australia generally distinguishes between the provision of services at on-site premises (at sex industry or sole-operator businesses such as brothels or massage parlours, or residences), at off-site premises (arranged through an agency or independently) or by soliciting clients in public spaces, although how each type of sex work is legislated varies considerably between each state and territory. Within each state and territory, some workplace types are criminalised while others are decriminalised, legalised and/or regulated.

The structure of the industry is therefore often subject to the legislation of the jurisdiction in which it operates. The criminalisation or licensing system imposed on sex industry businesses and the independent provision of sexual services create a separate category of the illegal or unlicensed sector. It is often assumed that this sector is distinct from legal or licensed workplaces; however, research on licensed and unlicensed brothels in Melbourne suggests that there is movement of employers and employees between these two sectors (Pickering, Maher & Gerard 2009).

According to the Sex Workers Outreach Project in New South Wales (SWOP NSW), about 40 percent of sex workers in the state work privately (Donovan et al. 2012). The proportion working as street-based sex workers or sex workers providing escort services is largely unknown, but has been estimated to be five percent and less than 10 percent, respectively, of all sex workers in New South Wales (Donovan et al. 2012). These proportions may not be observed in other jurisdictions due to the different legal frameworks around private and brothel work. For example, key informants involved in a large-scale research project on the industry in Perth suggested that there were about 530 brothel-based sex workers, 50 private sex workers and 50 sex workers providing escort services in Perth in any one year (Donovan et al. 2010b). It was estimated that there were only a ‘few dozen’ individuals working sporadically on the streets (Donovan et al. 2010b: 9).

One of the few studies that looked at the number of sex industry clients in Australia, the Australian Study of Health and Relationships (Rissel et al. 2003), found that overall:

  • 15.6 percent (n=1,458) of all males surveyed indicated that they had, at one time, paid for sex. Of these, 97 percent had paid for sex with a woman and three percent had paid for sex with a man;
  • less than two percent of all males surveyed indicated that they had paid for sex within the previous 12 months; and
  • the majority of men who paid for sex with women in the year before being interviewed paid for sex in brothels (65%), followed by at private premises where one or more sex worker/s worked (37%), through escort services (33%) and in massage parlours (27%). Only six percent stated that they paid for sex in the past year in a street sex-work setting.

Legal frameworks

Current legislation on sex work in Australia varies by state and territory (see Table 1) as a result of major reforms that occurred in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory in the 1970s and 1990s. These reforms led to the decriminalisation, legalisation and implementation of licensing schemes for commercial sex work, reflecting a variety of factors including: changing social mores regarding sex work, growing support for harm reduction for sex workers and the links between illegal sex work and corruption revealed in the Wood and Fitzgerald inquiries (David 2008; Schloenhardt 2009).

Therefore, there are currently three general approaches that are used to regulate the industry across Australia: legalising certain commercial components of the industry, usually under a licensing scheme; decriminalising sex work in all its forms; and criminalising sex work sectors (including clients, workplaces and people associating with sex workers). Victoria and Queensland have legalised sex work within brothels and implemented a licensing system to regulate the brothel industry. Victoria and the Northern Territory use a similar system for escort agencies; however, the sex worker staff of escort agencies in the Northern Territory must register with police and receive a ‘free of convictions certificate’ from the Police Commissioner. Private workers/sole operators are allowed to operate legally within Queensland and Victoria without a licence, but in Victoria they must be registered and in Queensland they must work alone. In the Northern Territory private workers/sole operators are not required to be registered or licensed but are not allowed to provide services from the same premises from which they organise their business.

New South Wales has decriminalised all forms of sex work, with the regulations for brothels placed with the local planning and development authorities; however, living off the earnings of the prostitution of another person (with the exemption of brothel employers and employees) is illegal (Summary Offences Act 1988, s 15). New South Wales is the only jurisdiction that has legalised the soliciting of sex services (which affects the legality of street-based sex work); however, it is required to operate away from dwellings, schools, churches and hospitals. The Australian Capital Territory has legalised brothels but only in two prescribed industrial suburbs. Brothels, escorts (agencies and sole operators) and private workers must register their business. Brothel workers are not required to register.

The exchange of money for sexual services between adults on its own is not illegal in any jurisdiction with the exception of Western Australia, where it is an offence to act as a sex worker if convicted of a drug-trafficking or Schedule 1 offence (Donovan et al. 2010b; Prostitution Act 2000, s 14). However, some or almost all forms of sex work are criminalised in Tasmania, Western Australia and South Australia. While legislation in South Australia and Western Australia remains silent on private workers, Tasmania’s legislation makes it legal for up to two sex workers to work from the same premises, on the condition they do not employ or manage each other. Western Australia implemented a ‘containment policy’ to deal with sex services informally for close to a century, and formally from 1975 (PLRWG 2007). This policy allowed police to grant immunity from prosecution to brothels ‘provided that the brothels were located in particular areas nominated by police and that brothels were female only operations’ (Donovan et al. 2010b: 32). The policy was officially abandoned in 2000; however, according to Donovan et al. (2010b: 34), ‘empirical research thus found a thriving and relatively open brothel industry in Perth’.

Table 1 Legal status of the sex industry in Australia by state/territory and sex work type
NSW Vic Qld WAa SA Tas ACT NT

Street-based work

Soliciting is illegal in certain areas (near or within view of a dwelling, school, church or hospital) (Summary Offences Act, ss 19, 19A)

Illegal (Sex Work Act 1994, s 13(2))

Illegal (Prostitution Act 1999, s 73(1))

Illegal (Prostitution Act 2000, ss 5, 6)

Illegal (Summary Offences Act 1953, s 25)

Illegal (Sex Industry Offences Act 2005, s 8(1))

Illegal (Prostitution Act 1992, s 19(1))

Illegal (Prostitution Regulation Act 2004)

Brothel work

Legal to run a brothel with appropriate planning permission. Act does not state that it is a crime to work as a sex worker in a brothel without planning permissionb (Restricted Premises Act 1943, s 7(1))

Brothels must be licensed and working within the licence conditions to operate legally (Sex Work Act 1994, s 22(1)).

It is a crime to live partially or wholly off the earnings of sex work unless working for legal premises (ie licensed, or exempt from requiring a licence but registered) (Sex Work Act 1994, s 10)

Brothels must be licensed and in accordance with planning laws (Prostitution Act 1999, s 66). It is unlawful to work as a sex worker in premises other than a licensed brothel or contrary to brothel licence, unless exempt from needing a licence (see private work below) (Criminal Code 1899, s 229C)

Illegal to run a brothel (Criminal Code Compilation Act 1913, Division 190, s 1(a)).

Also illegal to live partially or wholly off the earnings that the person knows are the earnings of prostitution (Criminal Code Act Compilation 1913, s 190(3))

It is a crime to manage or keep a brothel, or to receive payment in a brothel for sex work (Summary Offences Act 1953, s 28). Illegal to live partially or wholly off the earnings of the prostitution of another person (Summary Offences Act 1953, s 26)

Illegal to run a brothel. Act does not state that it is illegal to work as a sex worker in a brothel (Sex Industry Offences Act, s 4)

Legal to run a brothel, but must be registered and based in prescribed locations. Act does not state that it is a crime to work as a sex worker in a brothel that is not registered or outside the prescribed locations of Mitchell and Fyshwick (Prostitution Act 1992, s 18(1); Prostitution Act Regulation 1993, s 1(4); see also Prostitution Act, s 12(1))

Illegal to run a brothel. Act does not state that it is a crime to work as a sex worker in a brothel (Prostitution Regulation Act 2004, s 4)

Escort agency work

Not mentioned within the Summary Offences Act 1988 or Restricted Premises Act 1943

Escort agencies must also be licensed to operate legally (Sex Work Act 1994, s 22(1))

Clients of a social escort service must be informed that the service does not include prostitution (Prostitution Act 1999, s 96B). In addition, escort services cannot be advertised as including sexual services (Prostitution Act 1999, s 96A)

Not illegal to conduct an escort service but illegal to live off the earnings. See (Criminal Code Act Compilation 1913, s 190(3)) above

See above. Act does not state that it is illegal to work as a sex worker in an escort agency (Summary Offences Act 1953, s 26)

Illegal to run an escort agency. Act does not state that it is a crime to work as a sex worker in an escort agency (Sex Industry Offences Act, s 4)

Legal to run an escort agency, but must be registered. Act does not state that it is a crime to work as a sex worker in an unregistered escort agency (Prostitution Act 1994, s 12(1)

It is an offence to carry on an escort agency business unless they hold an operator’s licence (Prostitution Regulation Act 2004, s 6(1)). Act does not state that it is a crime to work as a sex worker in an unlicensed escort agency

Private work/sole operators

Not mentioned within Summary Offences Act 1988

Small business operators (two people working separately or jointly) and solo workers are exempt from requiring a licence to operate legally but still need to register their service. Small business operators also need a planning permit for their premises if they are providing services there (Sex Work Act 1994, ss 23, 24)

Legal for a person to work solely from a premise without a licence

Nothing in the Act specifically about private workers but see (Criminal Code Act Compilation 1913, s 190(3)) above

Nothing in the Act specific to private workers

Up to two sex workers can work together but cannot manage or employ each other (Sex Industry Offences Act 2005, s 3(1))

Legal but private workers still need to register (Prostitution Act 1994, s 12(1))

Individual workers cannot work from the same premises from which they organise their business; however, an individual ‘escort’ who is working on their own does not need to have a licence or be registered with police (Prostitution Regulation Act 2004, s 6(4))

Regulatory authority

Local councils approve business applications (see Restricted Premises Act 1943, s 17(1) above)

Business Licensing Authority grants licences for brothels and escort services and maintains the register of private workers

Prostitution Licensing Authority grants licences to brothels

WA Police

SA Police

Tasmania Police

The Office of Regulatory Services is responsible for registering brothels, escort agencies and sole operators

Director-General of Licensing (formerly the Northern Territory Licensing Commission) grants licences to escort agencies. All staff of escort agencies must be registered with NT Police and receive a certificate from the Police Commissioner

Principal legislation

Summary Offences Act 1988, Restricted Premises Act 1943

Sex Work Act 1994

Prostitution Act 1999, Criminal Code 1899

Prostitution Act 2000, Criminal Code Act Compilation 1913

Summary Offences Act 1953

Sex Industry Offences Act 2005

Prostitution Act 1992

Prostitution Regulation Act 2004

a: At the time of writing, the Prostitution Bill 2011 (WA), which proposes major amendments to the Prostitution Act 2000, including the legalisation of prostitution under a licensing system, was before the WA Legislative Assembly

b: However, it is illegal to use a premises for the provision of massage, sauna baths, steam baths or facilities for physical exercise, or for the taking of photographs, or as a photographic studio, or for services of a like nature for the purposes of prostitution or soliciting with the exception that the premises are licensed/registered under the Liquor Act 1982 or the Registered Clubs Act 1976 (Summary Offences Act 1988, s 16)

Note: This table outlines the content of legislation in each state and territory regarding sex work but does not include sex work provisions within common law

Employment practices

The subcontracting of sex workers appears to be a fairly entrenched business model in the sex industry (Drugs and Crime Prevention Committee 2010; Murray 2003; Northern Territory AIDS and Hepatitis Council 2005). In common law, an employment relationship is defined as that of an independent contractor/client or employer/employee, via ‘externalities, such as the provision of tools and equipment, how workers are paid and the way parties themselves classify the relationship’ (Murray 2003: 338). Financial arrangements are often made by sex industry businesses to reflect those of independent contractor/client arrangements, with ‘rent’ being charged for rooms in the workplace and sex workers expected to cover overhead costs (Drugs and Crime Prevention Committee 2010; Murray 2003; Northern Territory AIDS and Hepatitis Council 2005). Sex workers can also be encouraged to sign contract agreements verifying this relationship (Murray 2003).

As independent contractors, sex workers are exempt from certain entitlements and legal protections provided to employees such as sick and annual leave, WorkCover and superannuation (Murray 2003; Simmons & David 2012). However, it has been argued that the level of control managers have over when sex workers work and the services they provide more closely resembles the work arrangements held in common law to be those of employer and employee (Murray 2003). This includes fines for being late to work, not being allowed to sell sex services independently outside the workplace and control over the nature of the services sex workers provide, the amount they can charge and how long they work (Murray 2003; Northern Territory AIDS and Hepatitis Council 2005). This leaves sex workers without the freedoms associated with being an independent contractor, yet without the benefits of being an employee (Drugs and Crime Prevention Committee 2010).

This raises the issue of ‘sham contracting’. This is a situation where an employment relationship is disguised as one of client and independent contractor with negative consequences for the employee (ABCC 2011: 12). As independent contractors, sex workers are not covered under the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) unless there are incidences of sham contracting (Simmons & David 2012).

Current knowledge of sex workers in Australia: Demographics, health and safety issues

Much of the existing knowledge of sex workers has relied on input from peer and outreach workers, sexual health workers and sex workers themselves. Convenience or snowball sampling, where participants are recruited in a non-random manner using existing knowledge or social networks, is the main methodology used in the research and surveys referenced in this section. This dearth of population-based studies on sex workers internationally and within Australia is primarily a result of restricted access to sex workers for research and survey purposes due to:

  • the criminality and stigma attached to this sector;
  • language barriers; and
  • the practical and ethical difficulties of engaging with sex workers who work transiently, or inconsistently, within varying legal frameworks.

Male and transgender sex workers, organised contracted workers, opportunistic workers, undocumented migrants and those working outside the formal sex work sector (eg occasional escort/private workers) are particularly absent from large-scale research projects and surveys (Donovan et al. 2010b; Prostitutes’ Collective of Victoria 1994). Further, the sex industry contains a variety of jobs that may be part-time and, depending on the sector, not all individuals may identify themselves as sex workers (Harcourt & Donovan 2005).

Gender and age

The majority of sex workers are female (Donovan et al. 2012), although the number of male and transgender sex workers is possibly underestimated (Donovan et al. 2010a). Those who identify as transgender and male sex workers are difficult to access for research as they are more likely to initiate contact with clients electronically (eg by phone and online) and work as private escorts rather than in a brothel-based environment (Donovan et al. 2010a, 2010b).

Research suggests that the majority of sex workers are aged between 20 and 39 years (Donovan et al. 2010a; Pell et al. 2006; Perkins & Lovejoy 2007). The Law and Sexworker Health (LASH) project, which surveyed brothel workers in Perth (n=175), Sydney (n=201) and Melbourne (sample size unreported), found a similar median age for Sydney and Perth respondents of about 31 years, with licensed Melbourne-based brothel workers having a median age of 27 years (Donovan et al. 2010b). An analysis of the Sydney Sexual Health Centre’s (SSHC) database of female sex workers on their first attendance showed an increase in their median age from 25 to 29 years in the period 1992–2009 (Donovan et al. 2012). This increase in age appeared to be driven by an increase in the age of migrant sex workers, who made up a sizeable proportion of the sex worker population in Sydney. The median age of Asian sex workers surveyed at the Sydney Sexual Health Centre on their first visit increased from 26 years in 1993 (n=91) to 33 years in 2003 (n=165; Pell et al. 2006).

Age distribution has also been shown to vary by sector. A Queensland survey of sex workers (N=216) conducted in 2003 found that private workers (n=82) were older than street-based (n=33) and brothel-based workers (n=101), with about three-quarters of private workers over the age of 30 years compared with about half of brothel and street-based workers. Only seven percent of private workers were aged 18–24 years compared with more than one-quarter of street-based and brothel workers (Woodward et al. 2004). Although the results may not be representative, these findings have been replicated in studies from other states and territories. For example, a survey of 95 private workers and private escorts, and 124 brothel-based workers in Sydney, the Australian Capital Territory and the Gold Coast, found that the private escorts sampled were generally older than brothel-based workers (Perkins & Lovejoy 2007). It has been suggested that the older age of private workers can be attributed to the pathways individuals take to this sector, with the majority of private escorts being ex-brothel-based workers who have moved on to work privately as a sole operator (Perkins & Lovejoy 2007).

Migrant status and cultural background

The total number of sex workers working in Australia has been estimated to be 20,000 in any one year (Quadara 2008); however the proportion of workers born outside Australia remains largely unknown. Data from the SSHC suggested that the proportion of Asian migrant sex workers (ie those born in Asian countries) in Sydney accessing their Chinese and Thai-language clinics increased from 20 percent to more than half from 1992 to 2009 (Donovan et al. 2012). This increase in sex workers accessing Sydney sexual health clinics was attributed to both an increase in migrant sex workers from Asia and a decrease in Australian-born sex workers (Donovan et al. 2012). It is possible that these data are biased towards Asian sex workers due to the Asian-language clinics the SSHC runs; however, the LASH research conducted in Sydney brothels in 2006 found a similar proportion of migrant sex workers from China and Thailand . Australian-born sex workers made up 27 percent (n=55) of the sample, 21 percent (n=42) were born in China, 17 percent (n=35) in Thailand and 15 percent (n=30) in other Asian countries (Donovan et al. 2012).

Coinciding with the increase in the migrant sex worker population in Sydney was an apparent change in sex workers’ country of origin. The 1990s saw an increase in the migration of sex workers from Thailand (Brockett & Murray 1994), but in more recent years (the 2000s) there has been a substantial increase in sex workers from China and South Korea (Donovan et al. 2012). SSHC data from 2006 showed that the proportions of Thai and Chinese-born sex workers had nearly reached equivalence (24.4%, n=153 and 22.5%, n=141, respectively, of all sex workers who had visited the SSHC), reflecting the proportions in the LASH survey outlined above (Donovan et al. 2012). Data from the SSHC also showed a sharp increase in the representation of South Korean women from 2005; by 2009 they had increased their representation to close to that of Chinese and Thai women (Donovan et al. 2012). This is supported by a 2005 report by the then Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs (now the Department of Immigration and Border Protection) on non-citizens found working in the sex industry, which showed that South Koreans formed the largest category of migrant sex workers (244 of the 638 cases/people identified; ANAO 2006). This increase could in part be due to the South Korean government enacting stricter penalties on the local sex industry in September 2004 (see Choo, Choi & Sung 2011; Jung & Jang 2013), which may have prompted some sex workers and sex-work businesses to move abroad (Jung & Jang 2013).

The migrant status of sex workers in other parts of Australia varied from that found for Sydney-based sex workers. Nearly half of Perth-based respondents to the LASH project survey were not born in Australia (Donovan et al. 2012), but in contrast with the Sydney sex worker population, only 10 percent (n=17) of all sex workers surveyed were born in China, three percent (n=6) in Thailand and 10 percent (n=17) in other Asian countries. These results were said to reflect those observed for licensed brothel workers in Melbourne (Donovan et al. 2010b). The Queensland survey of sex workers (N=215, excluding non-responses/unknowns) showed a larger proportion of sex workers born in Europe (10%) compared with Asia (7%; Woodward et al. 2004).

At first glance, it appears that migrant sex workers are more common in some states and territories than others, and that the cultural background of this population also varies by jurisdiction. However, it is difficult to ascertain whether these proportions are representative of the true migrant population at the survey sites or the ease (or lack thereof) of access to this population for research.

Education

That the majority of sex workers in Australia are well educated is a consistent trend in the available, albeit limited, research on sex workers’ education levels. The survey of sex workers in Queensland (n=157, excluding non-responses/unknowns) showed that 64 percent had tertiary-level qualifications (Woodward et al. 2004). Private and brothel-based workers were significantly more educated than street-based workers, with one-quarter of brothel-based (n=19) and private workers (n=16) achieving a bachelor degree compared with 12 percent (n=2) of street-based workers. Nearly five percent (n=3) of private workers had achieved a postgraduate degree or certificate compared with one percent (n=1) of brothel-based workers and no street-based workers (Woodward et al. 2004). The LASH project showed that of the Sydney respondents (n=164 excluding non-responses/unknowns), 46 percent had an education level beyond high school, and of the Perth respondents (n=157, excluding non-responses/unknowns), 29 percent had achieved this level.

A questionnaire delivered to Asian female sex workers who attended the SSHC collected similar educational measures of sex workers born in China and Thailand (Pell et al. 2006). It showed a significant decrease, from 59 percent (n=54) to 29 percent (n=48) from 1993 to 2003 for those who had less than 10 years of education, and an increase from 18 percent (n=12) to 37 percent (n=61) for those with more than 12 years of education (Pell et al. 2006). Chinese-born sex workers were less likely to have less than 10 years of schooling compared with Thai-born sex workers (23% cf. 38%; Pell et al. 2006).

Health and safety issues for sex workers

Sexual health and violence are the key focal points of existing research about sex workers.

Health and wellbeing

Brothel-based and private workers generally had low rates of drug use, high rates of condom use and very low rates of sexually transmitted infections or STIs (Harcourt et al. 2001; Seib, Fischer & Najman 2009). Sydney brothel workers had levels of mental health that were comparable with the general population (Donovan et al. 2012).

Perth-based respondents to the LASH survey reported 100 percent condom use and experienced STIs at a rate similar to that recorded for the general population (Donovan et al. 2010b). The prevalence of STIs such as chlamydia, gonorrhoea, trichomoniasis, syphilis and HIV was similarly low among Sydney sex workers who visited the SSHC for the first time during this period (Donovan et al. 2009).

Categorising sex workers by the sector in which they work for research purposes can be problematic due to the extent sex workers may work in a variety of sectors simultaneously. For instance, 6.5 percent (n=13) of Sydney respondents in the LASH survey who were currently working in a brothel also worked as an escort and three percent (n=6) also worked privately (Donovan et al. 2012).

Assault and safety issues

Although limited in number, the research surveys reviewed in this report examine the issue of violence perpetrated by clients in the workplace. Eight percent of respondents to the LASH survey reported having experienced physical assault by clients (Donovan et al. 2012). Other surveys have measured the prevalence of sexual assault by clients within samples of brothel-based and private workers at proportions ranging from three to 13 percent (Perkins & Lovejoy 2007; Woodward et al. 2004). Physical assault by clients was experienced at a similar rate of two to 13 percent (Perkins & Lovejoy 2007; Woodward et al. 2004).

It must be noted that none of these surveys used a representative sample; therefore the proportions may not be generalisable to the entire sex worker population. It is also problematic to compare the findings of these surveys as each one differed in their sampling frameworks (respondents were sampled from different states with different legal frameworks for the sex industry), sampling approaches, sample sizes and categories for the violence reported by respondents.

Legal frameworks

The legal frameworks governing the sex industry play an important role in the health and safety of sex workers. As outlined in the Seventh National HIV Strategy:

[I]t is important to ensure that legislation, police practices and models of regulatory oversight support health promotion so that sex workers can implement safer sex practices and the industry can provide a more supporting environment for HIV prevention and health promotion (Department of Health 2014: 26).

The need for legislation, police and regulatory practices to support rather than impede health promotion extends to broader issues of workplace safety regarding violence, abuse and harassment. There is the risk that sex workers working outside the legal framework face greater barriers to reporting incidents of violence or abuse, or implementing safety strategies. However, as Quadara (2008: 14) explains:

Legal frameworks impact on sex worker safety in several ways. Most obvious is the classification of sex work as a legal or illegal activity. However, even where sex work is legalised, laws still determine where an individual can work, who they can work with, and how accountable brothels and other sex industry operators are in upholding the human and civil rights of sex workers.

The reforms made by the NSW Government to decriminalise the sex industry have been credited by the LASH research team as enhancing the ‘surveillance, health promotion, and safety of the NSW sex industry’ (Donovan et al. 2012:7).

Health and safety issues for migrants

There were several factors that were significantly associated with the prevalence of STIs among sex workers attending the SSHC between 1992 and 2006. These included being of a younger age, being of Asian origin and using condoms inconsistently at work (Donovan et al. 2009). This result is, in part, due to the lower initial rates of condom use among Asian sex workers during the 1990s. As consistent condom use in the workplace increased among Asian workers from 77 percent in 1995 to 95 percent in 2009 (Donovan et al. 2012), STI rates among Asian sex workers were reduced from nine percent in 1992–94 to one percent in 2004–06 (Donovan et al. 2009). This has been attributed to the collaboration of the peer-based SWOP NSW and sexual health services with the support of the NSW Department of Health, ‘aided by a decriminalised legal climate without the unnecessary expense and access barriers created by regulation’ (Chen et al. 2010; Wilson et al. 2010 cited by Donovan et al. 2010a: 76).

The level of victimisation from assault at work among migrant sex workers is largely unknown. A small-scale survey of Chinese-born sex workers in Australia showed that 44 percent of the 43 participants had experienced sexual assault in the workplace (Jeffreys 2009). A qualitative study of 21 South Korean sex workers in Sydney detailed cases where workers were ‘often verbally abused and subjected to controlling behaviour by their brothel owners, [managers], and/or madams’ (Jung & Jang 2013: 9).

In addition to the issues affecting all sex workers with regard to reporting sexual assault and violent situations that occur while working (ie the stigma associated with sex work, and the illegality of some forms of sex work in some states and territories), there are further barriers for women with diverse cultural and language backgrounds, particularly non-English-speaking backgrounds. For women from CALD backgrounds experiencing violence, barriers to accessing support include:

  • personal fear of reprisals, escalating violence or the authorities (ie police and the criminal justice system);
  • communication and language barriers;
  • stigma associated with disclosing abuse; and
  • limited access to information and knowledge of rights.

Other systematic barriers in accessing support include:

  • service providers not meeting the language requirements of an individual;
  • service providers not ensuring the informed understanding of an individual; and
  • racism and discrimination by mainstream service providers and other first points of contact (Allimant & Ostapiej-Piatkowski 2011: 8–9).

These barriers for sex workers, and for CALD women generally, may intersect to prevent migrant sex workers from reporting sexual assault and abuse experienced within the workplace. Migrant sex workers working illegally in the sex industry may also have a legitimate fear of deportation or other repercussions from the authorities, which may act as a further disincentive to report these crimes or access other formal support networks.

Migrant sex workers in Australia

As noted above, all surveys conducted on sex workers in Australia have included those born in countries other than Australia. However, with the exception of the SSHC surveys, there is little quantitative information specifically on temporary or permanent migrant sex workers in Australia and their experiences. Similarly, little is known about if and how their workplace experiences differ from those of their Australian-born counterparts.

Defining migrants

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) defines a migrant as a:

...person who was born overseas whose usual residence is Australia. A person is regarded as a usual resident if they have been (or are expected to be) residing in Australia for a period of 12 months or more. As such, it generally refers to all people, regardless of nationality, citizenship or legal status who usually live in Australia, with the exception of foreign diplomatic personnel and their families. Persons may have permanent resident status or temporary resident status (plan to stay in Australia for 12 months or more) (ABS 2013: n.p.).

In some instances, the ABS restricts its category of migrant to those who were aged more than 15 years on arrival or who arrived in Australia within a defined period (ABS 2013).

For the purposes of this research project, a broader definition of migrant was used. A migrant was defined as a person who reported being born in a country other than Australia, regardless of whether Australia was their usual residence and regardless of their age on arrival. This allowed for the inclusion of temporary migrants/visitors within the scope of migrant status.

Contract arrangements and debt bondage

The little research that includes sex workers born in another country suggests that migrant sex workers are not likely to be street-based sex workers and that they work predominantly in brothels (Pell et al. 2006; Woodward et al. 2004). Aside from the issues with sex workers acting as subcontractors for commercial sex service employers, as described previously, brokered contracts or agreements involving salary reductions to pay back debt owed between migrant sex workers and their employers may also increase the risk of coercion or exploitation. Although no recent research has been conducted specifically on the contractual arrangements of migrant sex workers, interviews conducted with sex worker organisations, sex workers, community development workers and sex industry business owners in Australia in the early 1990s revealed that Russian, Thai and Filipino women sex workers had highly organised, brokered agreements with workplaces across the country (Prostitutes’ Collective of Victoria 1994). These contract agreements often involved a third party acting as a broker or agent who organised the conditions of the contract directly with the workplace or workplaces (Prostitutes’ Collective of Victoria 1994).

More recent evidence shows that contract arrangements are indeed used by some migrant workers, particularly Thai sex workers in Sydney (Pell et al. 2006). The SSHC surveys showed that in 2003, 19 percent of Thai-speaking sex workers had been on a contract at some point and four percent of all Asian sex workers were at that time currently on a contract (Pell et al. 2006). However, it is unknown how many of these contracts were brokered by a third party or independently negotiated directly with the workplace.

In the early 1990s, outreach workers from the SWOP and SSHC described an apparent trend among Thai women of agreeing to verbal contracts that impose extremely large financial debts on them during short stays in Australia (Brockett & Murray 1994). Coupled with a lack of knowledge of Australian laws and poor English-language skills, this debt meant that Thai sex workers were often limited in their capacity to enforce safe-sex practices. Similarly, they were limited in their capacity to negotiate other work conditions while they were paying off their contracted debt (Brockett & Murray 1994). This trend of contracting sex work was not seen at the time to the same extent within migrant workers from other cultural backgrounds. More recent research (Pell et al. 2006) suggested that in 2003 the SSHC observed an increase in safe-sex practices by Asian sex workers, indicating that capacity to negotiate safer sex practices had significantly increased and that a smaller proportion than had been observed in the early 1990s had at some point been on a contract (27.5% in 1993 cf 9.1% in 2003). However, the proportion of Thai workers in 2003 who had at some stage been on a contract was still significantly higher than that of Chinese workers (18.8% cf 2.1%).

The type of contract arrangement described by Brockett & Murray (1994) suggests potential debt bondage, which is defined in the Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth) as a situation where a person is subject to a debt that must be repaid through the delivery of personal services and the amount of debt is ambiguous and/or manifestly excessive, a reasonable value of the service is not applied to the liquidation of debt, and/or the nature or length of the service is not defined.

It should be noted that employing sex workers on a contract tied to a debt does not necessarily constitute the crime of debt bondage in and of itself; however, due to the lack of empirical information on the types of contract arrangements that are used by sex workers in Australia, it is difficult to determine what proportion of such contract arrangements could be considered a situation of debt bondage. Further, debt contracts that do not fulfil the criteria of debt bondage may still create barriers for sex workers in accessing services or support, with anecdotal evidence indicating that some contracted workers did not obtain access to services until their contracted debt was settled (Prostitutes’ Collective of Victoria 1994).

At the time of writing, no criminal prosecutions in Australia involving debt bondage as the primary charge have been finalised, although the majority of the small number of sexual servitude and slavery cases in the sex industry have involved elements of debt bondage (IDC 2014).

Visas and previous work experience

Of the 165 Asian sex workers surveyed in the 2003 SSHC survey, nearly one-quarter (23.6%, n=39) stated that they were currently Australian citizens and the rest were in Australia on some form of visa. More than one-quarter were on a student visa (26%, n=42), 16.4 percent (n=27) were on a work visa and 10.9 percent (n=18) were on a tourist visa at the time of the survey (Pell et al. 2006). Another 4.8 percent (n=8) of respondents stated that their current visa had expired (Pell et al. 2006).

In contrast, only 7.8 percent (n=13) of the Asian sex workers surveyed for the SSHC study had entered (or re-entered) Australia on the basis of being an Australian citizen or resident; 40.6 percent (n=67) entered on a tourist visa. The proportions of those who entered on a student or work visa were not dissimilar to the proportions on these visa types at the time of the survey (25.4%, n=42 and 11.5%, n=19, respectively; Pell et al. 2006). A report by the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs on non-citizens working in the sex industry reported that the largest proportion entered Australia on Working Holiday visas (subclass 417; 215 of the 638 cases identified) (DIMIA nd, cited in ANAO 2006). South Korea is one of the nineteen countries (which do not include China or Thailand) whose citizens are eligible for this visa; therefore it is somewhat unsurprising that South Korean migrant sex workers commonly enter Australia under this visa (DIMIA nd, cited in ANAO 2006; Jung & Jang 2013).

The SSHC survey found that the proportion of Asian sex workers who reported previous experience in sex work overseas decreased from almost half in 1993 (48.4%, n=44) to less than one-fifth in 2003 (17.6%, n=29). This decrease coincided with a significant decrease in the proportion of Thai-speaking sex workers in the survey population, with Thai-speaking sex workers significantly more likely than Chinese-speaking sex workers in 2003 to have previous sex work experience overseas (29% cf 7.4%; Pell et al. 2006).

The overall percentage of sex workers who had planned to do sex work after entering Australia also decreased during this period (38.5%, n=32 cf 17.6%, n=29; Pell et al. 2006). This decrease is probably partially attributable to the aforementioned decrease in the proportion of Thai-speaking sex workers, who were significantly more likely than Chinese-speaking sex workers to have planned to do sex work in Australia (33.3% cf 6.4%).