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The findings from this survey make an important contribution to migration research regarding this subgroup (migrant sex workers), as well as highlighting several implications for service provision to migrant sex workers in Australia. This is discussed in detail below in addition to the limitations of this research and a concluding statement on lessons learned.

Migration experiences of sex workers

Sex workers have long been neglected in migration research (see Agustin 2006); therefore, little is known about the motivations of, and the costs and barriers faced by, people migrating to Australia, either specifically to do sex work or who engage in sex work after migrating. This research is one of the first studies to analyse the push and pull factors for sex workers migrating to Australia and the mechanisms they use, such as transit countries, intermediaries/migration brokers or agents, migration facilitators, and the associated financial costs of migration.

The results suggest that the majority of migrant respondents migrated directly to Australia from their birth country. There appeared to be a small number who migrated with their family when they were children, but the majority migrated as adults or young people. Education and financial incentives emerged as the major factors in migration. The largest group of migrant respondents indicated they had enrolled in an education course in order to enter Australia. However, there was also a substantial proportion who migrated as a result of getting married or in order to be married.

Migration facilitators were mainly romantic partners (27%) or brokers/agents (25%); however, migrant respondents were equally likely to have arranged their visas themselves (26%). Perhaps unsurprisingly, using a broker had higher associated costs than organising migration oneself or having a known person (ie relative, friend and/or partner) arrange it.

It is possible that migrant sex workers in New Zealand have a slightly different profile to those in Australia, with different push and pull factors at play among the two samples. Migrant sex workers surveyed in New Zealand were more likely to visit and work in New Zealand as part of their overall travel plans (Roguski 2013). A larger proportion of the Australian sample indicated that they migrated as a result of marriage or in order to get married. The largest proportion of both groups migrated to study; therefore, current and past international students appear to make up a substantial proportion of migrant sex workers in both Australia and New Zealand (see Roguski 2013). Possibly reflecting these different profiles, substantial differences were observed within income expenditure trends, with a greater proportion of migrant sex workers surveyed in Australia than those surveyed in New Zealand spending the majority of their income on overseas financial obligations (eg supporting family and paying debts). Despite the substantial proportion of both groups travelling to study, a greater proportion of migrant sex workers in Australia than in New Zealand cited education fees as a major income expense (Roguski 2013). Whether these differences are actual or related to different sample biases is difficult to ascertain.

Implications for service provision to migrant sex workers

Social and structural barriers

It was clear from the survey responses that some groups of migrant sex workers experienced difficulties in accessing services, particularly those with low self-rated English proficiency, which is perhaps not surprising. The barriers to services and information for migrant respondents include not only language barriers, but also a lack of knowledge about what services are available and fearfulness regarding their use.

The barriers for migrant sex workers to accessing mainstream and sex work specific services demonstrate a broader issue of marginalisation. Theories of intersectionality may explain this marginalisation of sex workers in the workplace context and the wider community. Intersectionality is a theoretical approach that:

...provide[s] a tool for analyzing the ways in which gender, race, class, and all other forms of identity and distinction, in different contexts, produce situations in which men and women become vulnerable to abuse and discrimination. (George 2001: 175, quoted in Manuel 2006)

For a migrant sex worker, the identity markers of race, language background, gender and being a sex worker combine to create structural barriers (eg migration and language) and socially constructed barriers (eg stigma and criminalisation of sex work, discrimination against migrants, gender discrimination) to accessing a range of resources. Although it was not possible to quantify from the survey responses how these identity markers affected work conditions, workplace satisfaction and overall migration experiences, the links between English proficiency, access to information and education illustrate potential intersections within the sex worker population.

Increasing access

The survey responses highlight a need to improve the dissemination of information about available mainstream and/or sex work-specific services to migrant sex workers. The responses to questions on sources of general information are a valuable tool in highlighting the best mediums through which to propagate messages. Friends and the internet were the most common sources for general information as indicated by respondents. Friends may include peers and other sex workers; therefore, internet-based platforms would be an appropriate way to advertise services and information. Sex worker outreach services also play an important role in distributing information to sex workers.

As previously mentioned, language barriers emerged from the survey as a major issue for migrant sex workers, particularly those from South Korea. Having outreach workers who speak languages other than English would enhance communication with migrant sex workers. Having information in print, online and in other media available in other languages would also improve the effectiveness of communications to migrant sex workers—not just about available services, but also about their rights and workplace responsibilities.

Due to the stigma surrounding sex work and the potential barriers working in the industry can create when seeking work in other industries, it is important that sex workers receive support tailored to the needs of the individual. This would ensure that sex workers have the same work opportunities and occupational mobility as others.

Targeting needs

The literature and survey responses highlight the heterogeneity of the sex worker population. Responses supporting this group therefore need to be appropriately targeted to the different needs this population displays. The following discussion attempts to illustrate demographic trends and subgroups of sex workers that emerge from the literature and survey responses, and reflects a distinction in needs for support both within and outside the workplace.

Demographic profiles

Demographic profiles can provide context around financial and social constraints and highlight areas where support and services are required. The survey responses enable a better understanding of the following characteristics of sex workers which should be taken into consideration by services and support networks:

  • a substantial proportion of sex workers (nearly half of non-migrant respondents) had children, many of whom were dependent children. A considerable proportion of respondents were single mothers;
  • many of the respondents were in a relationship; many migrant respondents were married;
  • the majority of both migrant and non-migrant sex workers were highly educated, with many of both groups having tertiary qualifications. A small group of respondents, mainly migrants, had little to no education;
  • the majority of migrant respondents were over 30 years of age; and
  • the majority of migrant respondents born in China and South Korea self-reported low or no English proficiency, with the majority of migrant respondents born in Thailand self-reporting high English proficiency.

Although the survey responses cannot be generalised to the entire migrant sex worker population (because it was a purposive non-randomised sample), the survey results still make an important contribution to understanding the complexities of migrant sex workers’ backgrounds. As stated previously, this survey collected a large response from a segment of Australia’s migrant population (sex workers) who have historically been difficult to access for research purposes. Therefore, this profile, although not representative, exists as one of the more comprehensive descriptions to date of migrant sex workers in Australia.

The survey findings and the literature also elucidated three potential pathways for migrants to sex work in Australia. These three categories denote potential separate support needs and backgrounds of migrant sex workers. It should not be assumed, however, that these groups make up the totality of the migrant sex worker population in Australia, nor are they analogous to individual sex workers’ experiences.

Migrating for sex work

Some sex workers migrate with the intent of entering the sex industry in Australia; within this group were those who were under contracted debt arrangements with their workplaces, as brokered by a third party. The number of those who migrated to Australia with the intent of working in the sex industry who were working under brokered agreements, and the number of those who arranged their work themselves, is difficult to estimate.

Unfortunately, that there is a group of migrants who travelled to Australia specifically to work in the sex industry can only be verified by the literature. The survey questions did not provide the information needed to distinguish this group from other respondents. The Australian government has either confirmed, or suspects, that Student and Working Holiday visas are used by migrants intending to work in the sex industry (Bowen 2011; DIMIA n.d., cited in ANAO 2006); therefore, it is possible that this group may be interested in staying in Australia only temporarily. There was a definite, if small, group of respondents to the survey who intended only a short-term stay in Australia.

International students

Given the substantial proportion of migrant respondents to this survey who spent the majority of their income on education debt, and who migrated with the intent to study, it is fair to assume that a substantial proportion of those who enrolled in an educational course to migrate to Australia were genuine in their objective to study rather than work in the sex industry. International study, therefore, may create a second pathway to sex work for migrants to Australia. It was not possible to determine the extent to which respondents undertook sex work while studying or after graduating.

One Melbourne-based study suggested that the financial burdens of undertaking tertiary education often make sex work a financially viable choice (Lantz 2005). This research also suggested that tertiary students often continue working in the sex industry after graduation, primarily as it produces a larger income than other occupations made available to them. Research suggests that the financial burdens on international students in Australia are particularly high, with many dependent on family or part-time work for income (Forbes-Mewett et al. 2007). International students may be unprepared financially to study in Australia, with some recruiters providing inadequate information to students about the true nature of living expenses (Forbes-Mewett et al. 2007). Further, international students who lack English-language skills and knowledge of Australian cultural practices often have a narrower range of occupational options; therefore, they are often paid below the minimum wage (Arnott 2013; Nyland et al. 2009). This highlights a possible incentive for international students to perceive sex work as a viable source of income.

Divorced migrant women

Finally, there is a group of migrant sex workers who entered Australia to get married but have since separated or divorced. Financial constraints on divorced migrant women may be high, particularly if they have low English proficiency, which may limit their employment options. Of the migrant survey respondents who stated that they were divorced, or separated but not divorced, 41 percent (n=27) said they did not speak English well, and five percent (n=3) stated that they did not speak English. The flexible hours of work possible in the sex industry may be an added incentive for divorced women, particularly if they have children. The New Zealand survey found a substantial proportion stayed in the industry for this reason (Roguski 2013), although a larger proportion of New Zealand-born sex workers (83%) than migrants (42%) selected this. Marriage breakdown may play an important role in the pathways to sex work taken by some migrant respondents.

Workplace types and conditions

In terms of work conditions, migrant and non-migrant respondents appeared to have similar workloads and hours. However, there were key differences in the types of workplaces at which migrant and non-migrant respondents worked, and potentially different payment and charge structures. Migrant respondents were more likely to work at massage parlours and less likely to work at brothels or as an escort. These are important considerations for researchers and outreach workers when determining how and where to contact migrant sex workers.

Migrant respondents also appear to be more likely than non-migrant respondents to have a contract arrangement with their workplace(s), are more likely to be charged for items such as food and work clothes, and are less likely to be charged shift fees by their workplace. The majority of migrant respondents were satisfied with their conditions in Australia and many intend to stay long term. However, responses from a small group of survey participants (n=7) suggested unhappiness with their current and/or past experience working as a sex worker in Australia. Loneliness and isolation were some of the explanations given for their discontent.

Experiences of workplace abuse

Migrant respondents were significantly less likely than non-migrants to respond to the question on positive and negative workplace experiences, which may illustrate a reluctance to disclose workplace experiences, particularly those involving violence or abuse. This high non-response rate may in large part also be attributed to issues with the format and wording of this question. Feedback from survey collectors and the steering committee suggested that migrant respondents in particular expressed difficulty with the table formatting of the question. However, this does not completely explain the significant difference between the non-response rates of migrants and non-migrants.

Regardless, the results did show that the experience of verbal abuse from people other than clients is an issue for sex workers at work, although this was reported to be more prevalent among non-migrant sex workers. While the responses to the questions on workplace experiences were overwhelmingly positive for the majority of workers, 36 percent of those who answered the question reported that they had experienced verbal abuse at work. The results also support the literature, in that condom use was reported to be high among both migrant and non-migrant respondents. Further, the majority of respondents had a good level of workplace knowledge and reported that they could refuse clients.

Overall, sex workers were significantly more likely to experience positive workplace experiences; however, there was a small group of respondents (both migrant and non-migrant) who reported their workplaces would not allow them to refuse clients, and who believed that it was legal for their workplace to fine them for taking a day off work or prevent them from leaving their workplace when they wanted to. This highlights the need for sex workers to be afforded access to labour protections, legal advice, occupational health and safety standards, and peer support. In addition, it reinforces the need for multilingual peer support and translated resources to be readily available to sex workers.

Research challenges and limitations

Accessing the sex worker population, particularly migrant sex workers, is particularly challenging for researchers. It is possible that those working transiently or on a part-time basis, and those working in a tightly controlled and perhaps exploitative situation, were under-represented in the final survey sample.

Although the sex worker organisations involved with the survey collection attempted to administer surveys to a wide cross-section of the sex industry, the sample was still predominantly composed of brothel workers. However, given that the target sample was migrant sex workers, and that research suggests these work predominantly in the brothel sector, this was not seen as a major methodological limitation. Due to targeted recruitment of survey collectors with Thai, Chinese and Korean-language backgrounds, access to migrant sex workers with these language backgrounds was gained successfully. Overall, survey collection was strengthened where cultural and linguistically diverse (CALD) peer educators were employed within the local sex worker project.

The sample was also predominantly drawn from New South Wales, which prevented this project examining jurisdictional differences. There was a particular lack of respondents from Tasmania and the Northern Territory, as face-to-face survey collection was not administered in these jurisdictions. Anecdotal evidence, albeit from two decades ago, suggests that the sex worker population of the Northern Territory might be different to that of some of the larger jurisdictions, as a large proportion of the sex worker population is non-English speaking and the sex worker population fluctuates in size according to the tourist and work seasons (Prostitutes’ Collective of Victoria 1994). Although this evidence is dated, it would have been interesting to explore whether this demography still held true and how this affected work conditions and access to services.

The study would also have benefited from the inclusion of additional questions on the length of time migrant respondents had been living in Australia and details of any existing contract and payment arrangements. Differences between temporary visitors and permanent migrants would have been noteworthy and an important contribution to research on migrant sex workers. Supplementary qualitative research (ie interviews and focus groups) on workplace agreements (contract and debt arrangements), migration experiences (the use of migration intermediaries, visas used and legality of entry and work), previous experience in the sex industry and the nature and role of financial pressures on work conditions in the sex industry would also have contributed greatly to the interpretation of the survey results. Informal focus groups were conducted by the Scarlet Alliance Migration Project with sex workers to discuss the issues raised in the survey responses, based on their own experiences. This process resulted in valuable information and highlighted the benefits of conducting focus groups and interviews more formally within a defined methodology.

The high rate of missing responses also limited some of the analysis that could be undertaken and the extent to which responses to some of the questions could be generalised to the entire sample. This is in part a reflection of the environment in which the survey was applied. The majority of surveys were administered while respondents were at work or waiting for a medical appointment, which meant that some of the surveys were not completed. The high non-response rate to some of the more personal questions (such as the number of children respondents had and some specific workplace experiences) may also have been due to the unwillingness of respondents to disclose private information.

Conclusions and lessons learned

One of the major lessons learned from this research is the value of participatory research as a means of engaging hard-to-reach sections of the community. The utilisation of existing sex worker networks, and the role this research played in strengthening and extending these networks to workplaces and people the sex worker agencies had not previously interacted with, demonstrate the benefits this type of research can provide. Sex workers were involved in critical aspects of the research, including providing essential input into the survey development, managing the survey data collection, and analysing and reporting the results. The sample size and diversity of workplaces represented was much greater than in previous surveys, which can be attributed to the contributions of participating organisations and their sensitive engagement with workers. The high number of surveys collected where bilingual CALD peer educators were employed in the local sex worker organisation indicated the value of CALD peer educators engaging with and removing barriers to access for migrant sex workers.

This study has also highlighted further areas of research. The nature and extent of contracted arrangements and the role of migrant sex workers debt requires more empirical assessment, particularly how this differs by cultural background and, more importantly, how it is linked to migration barriers and access to safe migration pathways for sex workers to Australia. The different pathways migrants take to sex work are also an area of interest, including further investigation into the different support needs of migrants temporarily migrating to Australia specifically to do sex work, international students and divorced migrant women. The impact of legislation and stigma on sex workers’ experiences, including their experiences of violence, social isolation and discrimination, is a gap that still exists in the literature on sex work, but was beyond the scope of this project.

Overall, this research contributes substantially to evidence of the reality of migrant sex workers’ work and migration experiences. The results of the survey can assist in dispelling inaccurate stereotypes about migrant sex workers’ demographic and work conditions and contribute to highlighting areas of need, support and service provision. Further, this research specifically highlights the need to address the impacts of language barriers, isolation, stigma and discrimination on migrant sex workers accessing support and services.

Last updated
3 November 2017